Will Lombardi: February 2022 Scholar of the Month

ASLE’s Scholar of the Month for February 2022 is Will Lombardi. 

Will Lombardi is Professor of English at Feather River College in the Northern Sierra Nevada Mountains of California. His projects support environmental protections in the watershed and region he calls home.

How did you become interested in studying ecocriticism and/or the environmental humanities?

Ha! I grew up hunting and fishing on the California Delta. When I was 16 I saw a book with geese on the cover at a Contra Costa County library book sale and purchased it. It was Leopold’s Sand County Almanac. It absolutely transformed the way I perceived the wetlands. They became a subject, a space within, to be dreamt into. Since then, I’ve consciously internalized the many landscapes I’ve been lucky enough to inhabit or encounter, and they are part of my own composition. Under the influence of that book, birds and place-based writing and now wildflowers are centerpieces in my life. Imagine my surprise when I read Drew Lanham’s The Home Place and found out that similarly to me, the Almanac’s cover had changed the course of his life, too.

Many years later, as a Master’s student, I was awarded a pre-doctoral fellowship by the California State University Chancellor’s Office that funded work with an established, willing scholar in the field of my choosing. Without really knowing what I was doing, I reached out to Cheryll Glotfelty. Within what seemed like minutes, Cheryll replied that she was going on sabbatical and needed help transcribing interviews for a book project that was still in its infancy on the photographer Peter Goin. I spent that summer housesitting for her and typing out hours of conversation. That fall I joined an absolutely incredible cohort of scholars at the University of Nevada-Reno in the erstwhile Literature and Environment emphasis—people for whom I am forever grateful and who will remain lifelong friends. It was there, and with them, that I learned the tremendous value of generous, diligent, activist-oriented scholarship.

Who is your favorite environmental artist, writer, or filmmaker? Or what is your favorite environmental text? Why?

It is impossible to choose a favorite environmental text. Somehow, though, it must be William Brewer’s Up and Down California because it hits so close to home. Brewer and Clarence King were part of Josiah Whitney’s geologic survey that led to the formation of the USGS. Brewer and King were responsible for cataloging my neck of the woods, the Feather River Watershed—an epistemological project of quantifying, mapping, and gridding, fraught with raw coloniality about which I am deeply conflicted. Again and again, however, I return to Brewer’s accounts, which are nonetheless a priceless compendium of the natural and cultural history of the entire state. In 2015 I participated in a University of California Extension class that certified me as a “Naturalist of the Upper Feather River Watershed,” essentially a citizen-scientist, training me to contribute to environmental work benefiting local non-profits. My capstone project for the course was to map Brewer and King’s progress in the watershed. I enjoyed hours in the Bancroft Library’s archives and ground-truthing in the field before leading fellow classmates along a portion of Brewer’s route through what is today Lassen National Park.

What are you currently working on?

My primary emphasis since 2017 has been on outreach and education, particularly community building and stakeholder collaborations on behalf of Friends of Plumas Wilderness, a local not-for-profit environmental protection organization. I’m tenured at a residential two-year school in rural Northern California, in the mountains north of Lake Tahoe. My position requires a focus on teaching and service, so my agenda has shifted accordingly to more public scholarship, civic engagement, and environmental activism in and around the Feather River Watershed, reflecting the aims of the larger ASLE community. I serve on the Board of Directors for Plumas Arts and Friends of Plumas Wilderness in addition to committee work on campus with the Sustainability Action Team and the Gay-Straight Alliance. With Plumas Arts and Eagle Pride comes the challenge of maintaining and supporting communities of care virtually in times of COVID. Tragically, simultaneous to the pandemic, our local watershed has suffered from the effects of climate change. Communities here have been destroyed and people have been unhoused or displaced by catastrophic mega-fire. Two of the largest wildfires in California history have ravaged this region. Against this grave backdrop I’ve been producing the Terrane blog for Friends of Plumas Wilderness to spotlight unprotected roadless areas, eligible wild and scenic rivers, and other unprotected proposed special interest areas on the Plumas National Forest. With our partners, I’ve organized “Fire Footprint Fieldtrips” that bring scientists, local Maidu leaders, trail crews, and artists and writers together with community members to discuss the biological, material, emotional, and psychological consequences of such dramatic loss. I am currently developing field trips in conjunction with each monthly blog post that would get local folx into vulnerable areas. In total, these projects intend to foster ground-level awareness and grassroots solutions for a landscape, its wildlife, and a people in jeopardy. My goal is to envision democratic, intersectional spaces for science and the humanities that promote everyday, heart-centered activism. After all, it is our connections, our feelings about a place we adore and call home that compel us to action. I think it is necessary for us to remember why we are here and why we stay—why we love this place—and that our efforts are meaningful in the bigger picture of global environmental care.

What is something you are reading right now (environmental humanities-related or otherwise) that inspires you, either personally or professionally? Comment briefly on why or how it inspires you.

Frederick Buell’s From Apocalypse to Way of Life keeps cycling back into my thinking since COVID began because it surveys the language of crisis. So too, in 2018, along the lower-end of my watershed, the Camp Fire became the deadliest fire in California history; during the summer of 2020 the Bear Fire burned almost 320,000 acres of our region—nearly triple the size of the Camp Fire—with an almost unimaginable fury. None of us had witnessed a fire of that size or severity. Entire towns were lost and biotic communities were ravaged beyond recognition. We were all stunned. Then, last summer, the Dixie Fire burned over three times as much land as the Bear Fire had, and I, along with most of my friends, became climate refugees for nearly two months. For these reasons, since ASLE’s conference in Davis I’ve been actively returning to Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell in addition to Buell’s book. Solnit’s argument describing the positive nature of “disaster communities” has been driven home to me again and again as burned towns in the Northern Sierra join in a solidarity that heretofore had only been given lip service. For seven weeks last summer, evacuees lived on my partner’s small farm—as many as 26 of us, four generations, with their goats, chickens, dogs, and cats—we cooked and washed communally, split firewood, made repairs, raked defensible space around the property, made music, went swimming, and generally cared for one another. I saw firsthand the verity of Solnit’s sense that “disaster is sometimes a door back into paradise,” and I felt the promise that such living might “topple old orders and open new possibilities” (3; 16). After living cooperatively under smoky skies without sun and the worst air quality on the planet, direct personal experience and Solnit’s examples have starkly underlined the need to leverage environmental humanities approaches for grassroots coalition building against patent uncertainty. Solnit’s book taps into something positive in the air here now, despite our anxieties and losses, even after the initial wave of good feelings has receded.

Is there a scholar in the field who inspires you? Why?

I was fortunate to join ASLE’s Public Writing and Civic Engagement Workshop with George Handley a few years back. Handley’s comments empowered me to extend work I’d already begun as a public scholar and to reconceptualize the boundaries of what seemed possible in my own community. His frank discussion about listening to and cooperating with stakeholders from all backgrounds was an important message to hear and has guided how I comport myself as a public figure in a small community. So too, I’ve found myself indebted to the language of nostalgia that Jennifer Ladino has contributed, especially as it informs how Buell writes about the language of crisis. It seems to me that a problematic nostalgia has brought my watershed to the crises it now faces, but that the counter-nostalgia of which Ladino considers, in conjunction with Handley’s locally-oriented political activism, points to ways out.