The River Rail: Exploring the environment

While climate change is often represented by scientific models, the arts and humanities have the unique power to evoke emotional responses and articulate imagined futures. The River Rail: Occupy Colby, a special edition of world-renowned art magazine, The Brooklyn Rail, features work centered on human engagement with environmental issues. As a collaboration between the Colby College Museum of Art, the Lunder Institute for American Art, and The Brooklyn Rail, The River Rail is the culmination of interdisciplinary work, including both Colby professors and the broader Colby community.

Professor Chris Walker, Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Environmental Humanities, co-edited the magazine with Classics Professor Kerill O’Neil and Environmental Studies professor Denise Bruesewitz. Exploring climate change from both human and scientific perspectives, the publication is closely tied to his research and teaching. 

“I am deeply interested in all things that have to do with climate change, but specifically how art can help us change the way we think and act in response to it,” Walker said in an interview with the Echo.  “The goal is that people who read [The River Rail] will walk away not only thinking a little more deeply about the intricacies of the problem but having tools to emotionally process the ramifications of it.” 

By teaching classes in both the English and Environmental Studies departments, Walker is emblematic of the goal of examining climate change through an interdisciplinary lens. In addition to editing, he also contributed an interview with prominent science-fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson, who visited the College as the Environmental Sciences Mellon Distinguished Fellow in 2018.   

“There’s no one discipline that is heading the effort,” Walker explained. “One of the things my time at Colby has taught me is that the richest, fullest, and most rigorous responses really bring to bear a collaboration that spans across campus.” 

The River Rail also serves as a companion piece to the Occupy Colby art exhibition and compels viewers to delve deeper into the exhibit’s themes. The magazine’s collection of writing, including poetry, interviews, and non-fiction essays, is in conversation with the selection of artwork curated by Phong Bui, artistic director of The Brooklyn Rail.

For Creative Writing Professor Arisa White, contributing poems to The River Rail involved a journey into the environment and an examination of her own connections with the earth. Last summer, the New York-native traveled to California’s Lake Merritt and recalled the lake’s emotional significance when she moved to the Bay Area in 2006.  

“I thought about movement and migration,” White explained in an interview with the Echo.  “Being a transplant from New York I just felt completely uprooted, but the lake served as this touch point for me…it started to be a part of my own mental health routine.”

After being still in the environment, White walked the lake with inspiring individuals including a friend, a naturalist, and a life-long Oakland resident and “modern abolitionist” activist. Their stories and activism brought life to the lake and illuminated White’s consideration of the “outside” as both physical space and social positioning.

“Our bodies are part of the environment and I feel like our social systems impact the environment,” White said. “The way we treat marginalized and ‘outsider’ bodies are the ways that we treat our environment, so how can I bring all of that together?”

White developed a “hybrid poetic collection” of poems narrating one woman’s “quarter life crisis” journey around the lake. The poems begin with the time of an attack or violation against the LGBTQ community, with names of victims becoming names of weather events.  

In addition to Colby professors such as White and Walker, Meghan Hurley `20 and Ben Theyerl `20 contributed pieces to the publication. Theyerl, an English and education major and environmental studies minor, embraced the “incredible” opportunity and considered his own upbringing in the rural community of Altoona, Washington.

“I go to a lot of talks and hear about how if we could reach rural working-class people, we could build a coalition to action,” Theyerl said in an interview with the Echo.  “I am demographically part of that group, but I see myself as very much engaged with climate change. I was thinking about forms you would use to communicate with people that aren’t always thought of as being part of the issue.”

Following its launch, The River Rail will be available at no cost on the Colby campus and distributed at locations throughout Maine and New York. 

“I’m finding ways to use language that return us to the actuality of the world and create new fields of feeling and meaning that can clarify the world even more,” White said. “Having our art in different spaces speaks to the fact that there is something about being an English teacher, being a poet, being a fiction writer that prepares you to be in multiple conversations.”