The highlands, near Dalwhinnie, Scotland: Photo by Brent Olson


A conference Recap from Jeff Nichols

Scotland might not immediately leap to mind when you think “mountains,” but Perth College, University of Highlands and Islands has hosted three well-attended Mountain Studies conferences. In October 2015, my IMR co-director Brent Olson and I attended Perth III: Mountains of our Future Earth. Conference host Martin Price brings serious bona fides to his job: he’s the Director of the Centre for Mountain Studies there and the Chairholder of the UNESCO Chair in Sustainable Mountain Development. And he throws a serious conference, with a bit of fun tossed in.

About 420 delegates crowded the modern Perth concert hall, just across the street from the weathered gray stone Royal Scottish Geographical Society, also renowned as the fictional home of Walter Scott’s The Fair Maid of Perth. It quickly became apparent to this historian that he was in for an academic culture shock. Each day began with a plenary session, a fine tradition that provided shared discussion material. Prof. Price and his staff ran a very tight ship — things started on “Swiss time,” as he joked — and he signaled the end of coffee breaks by rattling an old cow bell. Sessions were two hours long, with seven or eight presenters and a chair, but no comment as is usual at history conferences.

This proved to be overwhelmingly a natural and physical science conference — some 70% of the delegates described themselves thus; lots of ecologists, botanists, hydrologists — and nearly all of the remainder were social scientists, leaving exactly four of us (less than 1%) who hailed from arts and humanities. That meant an enormous amount of talk about “systems” — ecological systems, social systems — and very little talk about stories. While several sessions talked about something that sounded suspiciously like history — often phrased as “land use legacies” — I’m fairly certain I did not hear a mention of a named individual person in four days except in the introduction of a recently published political history of mountains by Bernard Debarbieux, who proved to be a geographer. The social scientists complained that they were in the minority, and I joined a lunchtime breakout group that conspired to find ways to bring more focus to rural human communities.

But many of the sessions were fascinating (not least for the different scholarly languages spoken) and given the conference’s goal to promote sustainable development in mountain regions, often intensely practical and idealistic: for example, how to protect downstream communities from Glacier Lake Outburst Floods (GLOFs; these folks love their acronyms) and several sessions on sustainable mountain farming. The fun came in the form of field trips (I visited the experimental Kirkton Farm run by Scotland’s Rural College) that included distillery visits, a ceilidh (Scottish dancing evening), and a conference dinner. The entire event was meticulously documented, with a blog where chairs posted abstracts and videotaping of all the plenaries.

I left with mixed but positive thoughts about mountain studies (the mixed representing feeling like a historian adrift on a sea of science). We met dozens of smart, passionate researchers from around the world with whom we hope to collaborate. And I see a place for the humanities — historians, literary scholars, poets, philosophers — to help interpret this important work, put it into human contexts, and communicate it to the world. We’re already plotting on how to infiltrate Perth 2018 with armies of humanists and critical theorists.

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