Temporary land: climate histories of the East Anglia fenland
My current research takes as its focus a particular British landscape (the East Anglian fenlands), exploring it from an ethnographic and historical perspective. The Fens are a place where the Protestant Work Ethic has been inscribed on the landscape; labour cuts drainage ditches to bleed the peat, and creates productive land where once there was only feckless and lazy swamp. Or, to listen to the story another way: labour attempts to impose man's will on God's dominion, with disastrous consequences for humans and for other species. The Fens remain a contested environment, represented variously as a natural flood barrier, a carbon sink, a key element in Britain's food security, and a tourist attraction. My work explores how wetland is enclosed as a resource, and examines the politics that surround the kind of resource that it becomes.
As part of the Climate Histories network, I collaborate with other researchers in order to better understand environmental change and climate vulnerability and adaptation from a variety of regional and disciplinary perspectives. In this way, we are able to take a global and long-term view of climate, while remaining rooted in the particular experience of humans in different parts of the world. Out of this research, we are developing collaborations with engineers and land economists in order to build our expertise into policy solutions for climate change mitigation and adaptation.
Religious life in an English Benedictine monastery
I also retain an interest in the anthropology of Christianity, and my ongoing research in this area aims to provide an ethnographic account of the institutional life of an English Benedictine monastery. I try to reach an understanding of the different elements of monastic life, especially ritual, mysticism, reading (lectio divina), and work. Fieldwork consisted of a year spent in and around Downside Abbey in Somerset, eating in silence in the monastic refectory, learning to make things in the carpentry workshop, drinking tea, and following the daily cycle of prayer. I view the Benedictine monastery as a continuing experiment in Christian living, and argue that the Benedictine monk takes on the role of the 'virtuoso of ordinary Christian life'.