by Marko Capoferri
[Editor’s note: as Camas Magazine Co-Editor interviews go, this is by far the longest one this blog has seen. As you will find out, there’s a good reason for that. Sydney brings to the position of Camas Co-Editor a pretty unique (in my opinion) background and set of interests among the already-diverse field of Environmental Studies graduate students, and she certainly brought that unique energy into this interview. I hope you enjoy our conversation.—MC]
Sydney Bollinger came to the University of Montana by way of her native Ohio and later Georgia, where she earned a BA in English Lit. and Foreign Language & Literature with a concentration in German at the University of West Georgia.
Sydney is a first-year graduate student in the Environmental Studies program at the University of Montana, and Camas Magazine is pleased to welcome her as its newest co-editor.
MC: Growing up in the East and Midwest, what did “the West” mean to you? What resonance, if any, did the concept of the West have for you then?
SB: It never seemed real. I grew up surrounded by cornfields, so the idea that there were mountains, and aridity…it seemed like a frontier, like it didn’t really exist. There was this big blank spot in my personal map between Iowa and California.
MC: How about now? What does “West” mean to you now that you are here?
SB: Being here, there’s so much land, everything feel’s huge. Being surrounded by mountains, I thought it would feel claustrophobic, but it’s actually very freeing, to know that there’s so much beyond what you can see and it seems like it’s not going to end. It actually kind of reminds me of when I was a kid and I’d stand in the backyard during growing season: the only thing I could see for miles was corn, and it didn’t look like it ever ended. It’s like the ocean, in a way.
It’s funny, these ideas of the West, of someone going out and exploring, of the frontier: it still feels like that to me, to an extent, because it feels like there’s so much beyond what you can see.
MC: Tell me about how you ended up in UM’s Environmental Studies program.
SB: I had decided to study English for my undergrad. I thought, “I don’t really know why I want to do this,” so I kind of meandered through the program. I enjoyed the coursework, but I had no real direction as to where I wanted to take it. But I’d always been interested in environmental topics.
During my undergrad I got to spend a summer abroad in Germany; living there really changed the game for me. They do so many cool environmentally-friendly things. I was always somewhat aware of what I was doing and its impact, but when I came back from Germany I was a lot more conscious. A professor suggested I look into grad school and I found this program [at UM]; it’s interdisciplinary, which I like, because I have no background in the hard sciences.
From there I began to tailor the coursework in my final semester of undergrad to be environmental or eco-focused. My senior thesis was an ecological look at Don DeLillo’s White Noise. I had decided: “this is something I want to do, and I’m going to figure out how to do it.” And now I’m here. I knew what I liked, and I’ve chosen my path based on what I liked my entire life—which is why I studied English and German—so I might as well keep on keeping on with that.
MC: Pico Iyer wrote that he once traveled to Asia partly “to see America from a different vantage point and with new eyes.” You’ve touched on this, but could you elaborate on how being in Germany shifted your perspective on the United States?
SB: You don’t realize how you live your life until you have to live it somewhere else. It was interesting to see how my habits had to change in order to work with something new, and most of the time it was for the better.
I got to see how other people perceive the States. This was the summer after Trump was elected, so I got a lot of questions about America’s nationalism or patriotism from my German friends. It was good to hear people be critical of this place that not many people who live here seem to be critical of, or who just have the privilege of not caring.
Living there allowed me to think about some things I have been fortunate enough not to have to think about. Like transit, for instance. Germany has great public transit; I never thought I’d get so interested in public transportation, at all, but now I’m very interested. I keep tabs on what Atlanta is doing with their public transit system, because it’s fascinating to pay attention to. I started thinking about how much trash I produced on a regular basis, because I had to sort it. I never had to think about what to do with my trash. And even recycling: we don’t know where it goes. It goes into the recycling bin, but what happens to it? We have no idea. Little things like that made a big impact on how I see our excess of consumption.
MC: What role do you think writing and literature can play in raising environmental awareness?
SB: People will read entertaining stories. If you can get someone to read an entertaining story then you have an “in” to helping them understand a bigger issue, like climate change. It’s probably why I’m so interested in climate fiction [or CliFi].
One of the better examples of CliFi is Jasmine Ward’s Salvage the Bones. It’s about a low-income family in New Orleans in the days leading up to Hurricane Katrina. The book isn’t necessarily about the hurricane; it’s about these peoples’ lives. But there’s still this background noise of not having access to any information about what’s going to happen to them, and not having access to information about why it’s happening. Even if you don’t believe in climate change, you can understand that what happened in New Orleans was a tragedy. There’s something very powerful in connecting with another human’s experience and understanding how their life may differ from yours, for these very specific reasons. So, reading a book like Salvage the Bones…I’ve never lived the characters’ experience, but I have the empathy to understand it, which means I have the drive to do something about it.
Literature itself is not going to be the end-all-be-all, but getting people to understand each other is. That’s why things like Camas are important: it’s peoples’ stories of the environment and nature, and people connect to stories. You can get someone to believe in a story even if they don’t want to listen to hard facts.
MC: Finally, what do you think you bring to the table as Camas co-editor?
SB: I think not having done fieldwork or outdoors work has allowed me to focus my energy and interest on environmental issues relating to urban areas, if that makes sense. Additionally, since I was in the humanities, much of my study was focused on human ethic and human connection, rather than looking at scientific theories (of which I know almost nothing about). In that sense, I’ve been able to look at culture differently, to see how people are thinking, to see what people are thinking. I think there is definitely a reason for including the humanities in environmental conversations, especially as we move toward increased environmental proficiency—perhaps my more theoretical understanding of environmental issues lends something unique? I’m not sure, but I’d say the entire amalgamation of experiences that contribute to Camas all bring something unique.