Featured Historian: Andy Flack

Andy Flack is Lecturer in Modern and Environmental History. He is an environmental historian who specializes in histories of human relationships with animals and their wider environments in Britain and the US across the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. He teaches environmental history across undergraduate and postgraduate programmes, as well as contributing to team-taught units on a wide array of subjects relating to the period since 1800. 

Hi Andy, thanks for joining us! So what’s the title of your new project, and what’s it about?

My new project is entitled ‘Dark dwellers as more-than-human misfits: a new synthesis of disability studies, environmental history and human-animal relations’. It is a cutting-edge eighteen-month project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (Leadership Fellows scheme), and it initially examines the ways in which the senses and ways of life of nocturnal animals – from bats to blind cave fish – have been historically understood across scientific communities in Britain and North America over the past couple of centuries. Secondly, it considers the emergence of threats faced by these species as a consequence of human action, from light pollution impacting on sensory systems to transport infrastructures fragmenting nocturnal habitats. In so doing, it not only provides new insight into the ways in which people have imagined ‘deficiency’, ‘ability’, ‘vulnerability’ and ‘resilience’, but also asks whether it is possible to consider animals as having been ‘disabled’ from participation in their world as a result of human interference. Through a focus on animals who live in the darkness, I will develop a new agenda for research at the intersection of disability studies, environmental history and histories of human relationships with animals.

In addition, I will work with the Bristol Zoological Society, Bristol Eye Hospital, educational consultants and artist practitioners to develop new ways of teaching Key Stage 2 children about diversity, vulnerability and resilience, and new ways of coaching sight-impaired people through their sight-loss journeys.

It’s a really exciting, challenging, and important project. I can’t wait to get started!

So how did you become interested in this?

There are three main reasons underpinning my interest in this research. I’ve always been interested in the darkness. I was fascinated by caves, by the night sky, and by the character and atmosphere of cities in the dead of night. All three are other-worldly in ways that are peculiar to themselves but which each tap into what I think is a very human sensory and emotional response to a world normally obscured (from us) by the absence of light. This interest joined with my specialism working in the fluid borderlands between humans and other animals. Historically, people’s relationships with other animals have been complicated by the fact that, culturally, we recognize similarity but insist upon fundamental difference. I wondered how this relationship manifested in the context of environments from which we are usually excluded as a result of our own sensory capacity. Finally, my own sight-impairment motivated my pursuit of this kind research. I wanted to find a way of thinking with and through the concept of ‘disability, of using my expertise to intervene in the field of disability studies in a way that made sense.

What is the importance of this research today?

There are a few reasons why this research is important.

It’s the first time that disability studies, environmental history and histories of human animal relations have been brought into conversation with each other. I hope that in the process, historians will learn to think about ‘normalcy’, ‘ability’, ‘vulnerability’ and ‘resilience’ in new ways, as historical terms which transcend and cross-fertilize ideas about human and non-human realms. Secondly, this is vital research that brings dark environments into view. Historians -including and perhaps especially environmental historians- have tended to focus their enquires on events in the light of day. In so doing, they miss half of what happens and has happened in the world. Indeed, recent scientific studies have suggested that night-time ecosystems are perhaps more vulnerable to climate change than those of the daytime. If humanities scholars are to contribute to understanding of the past, present and possible futures of planetary change, then, they must engage with the world after dark. Finally, there is a personal importance attached to this project. Its my first real foray into the realm of disability studies. As a sight-impaired historian whose impairment has been – and remains – hidden (sometimes consciously), my work on this project, in full view of colleagues, friends, collaborators, and students, represents a step in a perpetual process of ‘coming out’, of becoming more authentic.

What advice would you give to a student interested in environmental history?

For students interested in working in the field of environmental history, I’d encourage them to think historically. This might sound like a fairly obvious suggestion. It is, however, particularly important for those of us working in this field of research, because thinking ahistorically is a peril that is particularly acute for us. Today’s environmental crises – from climate change to mass extinction, and from plastic pollution to pandemics – evoke strong emotions that are of our time. People in the past rarely shared such emotional responses and so we need to be particularly careful not to let our sense of grief and outrage for the loss of much of the natural world’s beauty and biodiversity to infect and distort the way we read past and tell stories about it. Look for complexity, change, and continuity. Look for context and explanation that are rooted in time and space. Look for the roots of where we are today and keep your feelings in check – channel them elsewhere.

What’s the best advice you ever got about history?

Be adventurous.

Seek out material at the margins, at the peripheries. Don’t confine your study of history to the mundanely familiar. Read widely, and explore stories about the past that feel strange, unfamiliar, perhaps even uncomfortably weird. If you are to really understand past people, places, and events, you need to have a feel for the past as a tapestry comprised of complex entanglements, of loose threads, of knotted aberrations. This is the advice I was given, but it has infinitely enriched by understanding of what the past was and of that the study of history can be.

What’s the most interesting thing you’ve read in the last twelve months?

My mind keeps being drawn back to a book I read during the first uncertain days of lockdown. Mudlarking, by Lara Maiklem really caught my imagination.

Lara spends early mornings and late evenings – actually, any point at which the tidal Thames has receded enough to expose sections of the shoreline – searching for treasure, for items that form the residue of everyday lives long passed. The book is structured as a journey down the Thames towards the river’s mouth. On the way, Lara uses the objects she has found across her mudlarking career – from children’s shoes to items of jewelry and fragments of pottery – as a means of telling stories about past lives. I love the serendipitous nature of her explorations and discoveries: during my undergraduate degree I undertook a range of archaeology units, mainly because I fancied myself as an Indiana Jones type figure. I adore that fact that the past remains with us – admittedly in fragments but also often in the midst of our everyday. If we go looking, we can travel in time.

If you had a time machine, where and when would you most want to go?

Deciding which one place I’d like to go if I were lucky enough to acquire a time machine is really quite tricky. There are so many times and places that I’d like to visit, though when I think of them, most potential visits to past times become quite unappealing in the context of the absence of antibiotics and similar medical interventions (I’m worried about getting trapped in the past like in Back to the Future). But, on balance, I’d probably head to a small shop, at 221 St George’s Street in London’s East End, sometime around the turn of the twentieth century. There I’d find a gentleman called J. D Hamlyn, who ran a wild animal emporium. Employing agents to scout ships as they came up the Thames, he would meet mariners once they’d docked in order to buy from them wild beasts they’d acquired over the course of their travels. His emporium would have been stocked with an astonishing array of creatures, and the sensory impact would have been incredible. I’ve read so much about these places and I’d love to see what they were really like. Most of all, though, I’d like to verify a tantalizing comment in the sources: that Hamlyn ‘employed’ chimpanzees to run the front-of-house- operation of his shop.

Unlikely, surely, but worth a look.

What’s your must-do Bristol experience/activity?

I’m biased on this one.

I think everyone who comes to live in Bristol ought to visit the Zoo in Clifton. I wrote my PhD and my first book on the subject, so I’m perhaps unhealthily obsessed with the place. Whatever your view on zoos as places of entertainment, conservation and/or suffering, there is no denying that Bristol Zoo is intimately woven into the fabric of our city. Established in July 1836, it’s the oldest surviving provincial zoo anywhere in the world. The site itself, embedded in the affluent neighborhood of Clifton, remains largely the same size and shape as that when it opened. The history of the place is inscribed on the landscape itself, from the original bear pit to the otter grotto of the original zoo, and from the remnants of the polar bear enclosure made nationally famous by the pacing behaviour of a psychotic creature to the death mask of Alfred, the city’s wartime mascot. Young people, in particular, have been visiting the zoo for decades. According to past students, the zoo is the place to go for a Bristol first date….

What are you working on next?

My AHRC project is part of a larger book project that examines nineteenth and twentieth centuries of what I like to call the ‘wild night’.

Entitled ‘Nights on Earth’, the book examines a range of dark environments – from the midnights of the underground and the deep sea, to the seasonally long nights of the poles, the artificial nights of the nocturnal house, and the more familiar nights of our every day: the night outside the front door. The book asks how people have learned to access these diverse nights, how they’ve understood what they’ve found there, and how nights on earth have changed in the face of human ‘colonization’.

Its super exciting!

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