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A.W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellows

Maura Capps
History, UW-Madison
A.W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow (2016-2018)
All Flesh Is Grass: A New Agrarian History of Britain’s Settler Empire

What does the history of British colonial settlement look like at the level of clover and cowpats? What about at the level of Crown Land and Corn Laws? Capps's book manuscript, "All Flesh is Grass" is a hybrid ecological/agrarian history of British settler colonialism that considers the political, economic, and intellectual development of the Empire alongside its climatic, geological, and biological frameworks. Settlers brought with them plants, animals, and diseases that, as Alfred Crosby argues, did their own “colonizing” in these new places; but the independent biological processes that helped Europeanize the landscapes of settler colonies cannot be divorced from the political, economic, and intellectual history of the Empire as a whole. Using archival research from Australia, South Africa, Sierra Leone, Canada, and New Zealand as well as data from the life and geophysical sciences, Capps brings the global in conversation with the local, examining a myriad of factors--climate, soils, indigenous encounters, political ideologies, local and global markets, emigration and land policy, labor systems, plant ecology-- that shaped agricultural settlement in the long nineteenth century. By highlighting both the literal and figurative grassroots this expanding empire, the project connects the economic anxieties, scientific aspirations, ideological tensions, and political maneuverings of British elites in the Colonial Office with the microscopic but singularly important process whereby nutrients cycle through the roots of plants and guts of animals. Through this "eco-agrarian" analysis, Capps explores the tension between the dismal science of limits and thresholds and the progressive science of abundance and potentiality that characterized colonial agricultural development in the nineteenth century, tensions that endure today in debates on climate change, food security, and environmental degradation.

Maura Capps grew up and then taught high school in a rural community in South Carolina at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Her early academic interests were shaped by the daily interplay between landscape and history, environment and economy, and agriculture and politics in this region. She received her Ph.D. in History at the University of Chicago in 2016, specializing in environmental history and the history of Britain and the British Empire. Her research and teaching interests include global environmental history, history of conservation, food history, comparative colonialisms, history of agricultural science and technology, climate change, and global population and emigration. Her research has been supported by the Nicholson Center for British Studies, the Social Science Research Council, and the American Council of Learned Societies.

Portrait image of Jessica Lehman on a beach
Jessica Lehman
Geography, UW-Madison
Holtz Center for Science and Technology Studies
A.W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow (2016-2018)
Planetary Sea: Oceanography and the Making of the World Ocean

My project explores the politics of science at the planetary scale by studying how the ‘world ocean’ has come to be known as a single dynamic entity with a special relationship to life on Earth. This work addresses a challenge of at the heart of contemporary environmental thought: the imperative to ‘scale up’ our analyses to encompass entire geophysical systems and humanity as a species, while attending to local particularities and radically varying and frequently unjust life experiences. I show how geopolitics, power relations, and ideas about nature shape, and are shaped by, international scientific programs that address the ocean at a global scale. Ultimately, I propose an alternative reading of international oceanographic science. This allows me to formulate the notion of the ‘ocean archive,’ which draws together insights from oceanographic science and postcolonial scholarship to consider different ways of conceptualizing the nature of history. 

Jessi Lehman is a geographer and interdisciplinary scholar interested most broadly in environmental politics, uncertainty, and inequality. She received an M.A. from the University of British Columbia, and a Ph.D. in Geography from the University of Minnesota, where she was also a fellow at the Interdisciplinary Center for the Study of Global Change. Her Ph.D. project focused on the geopolitics of ocean space and international oceanographic science, and involved archival research and interviews in the United States, the United Kingdom, and South Africa. She also has undertaken broader work on the politics of environmental change and resource extraction. She is currently at work a project entitled Planetary Sea: Oceanography and the Making of the World Ocean.

Black and White portrait of Ella Tobin Mershon
Ella Tobin Mershon
English, UW-Madison
A.W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow (2016-2018)
Passing Forms: Decay and the Making of Victorian Culture

“Passing Forms” asks why decay, a process seemingly synonymous with collapse, comes to shape literary and scientific ideas of formation in the nineteenth century. From geology’s revaluation of eroded sedimentation as fodder for future worlds to T. H. Huxley’s proclamation that living protoplasm is “always dying,” multiple nineteenth-century scientific discourses converged on a single principle: all bodies are made of decomposing and recomposing matter. At once a reflection of the nineteenth century’s “discovery of time” and its interest in an epochal view of life, decay comes to signify the power of inanimate matter to form itself anew. This project aims to locate decay in the tranformationism so characteristic of the period and to overturn the idea that degeneration emerges at the end of the century as evolution’s evil twin. Instead, I reveal decay’s presence across the century, as it nestles itself into Victorian conceptions of life, growth, progress, and reform. Tracing the contours of geological erosion, chemical decomposition, and electromagnetic dispersals, I find in Victorian decay an aesthetics of latency, that is, an appreciation for the not-yet-formed, for the barest hint of form adrift in the wind-blown, the washed-away, the heaped-up. But, to be sure, such aesthetic possibility cannot be separated from the experience of loss. The question, then, becomes what does such loss afford? What possibilities—aesthetic, ethical, environmental—are latent in decay’s processes of unwilled undoing?

Ella Tobin Mershon received her Ph.D. in English in 2016 from the University of California, Berkeley. Her research interests include Romantic and Victorian literature, history of science, David Hume and British empiricism, affect studies and the science of feeling, media studies, theories of alterity and gender studies, object theory, thing theory, and the new materialisms. She has received research funding from the Center for British Studies and the James D. Hart Grant. In 2013-14, she served as a mentor to undergraduate English majors as a recipient of the Berkeley Connect Fellowship, a program designed to foster intellectual community among undergraduates in a large research university. She has taught courses on detective fiction, the case study as a genre, weird fiction, and survey courses on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century literature. Her forthcoming article, “Ruskin’s Dust,” will be published this fall in Victorian Studies. She is at work on a project entitled “Passing Forms: Decay and the Making of Victorian Culture.”

Portrait image of Lisa Ruth Rand, closely cropped
Lisa Ruth Rand
History, UW-Madison
Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies
A.W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow (2016-2018)
Orbital Decay: Space Junk and the Nature of Outer Space

What is space junk, and who defines waste in an environment seemingly devoid of nature as we know it? Lisa Ruth Rand's first book explores these questions by investigating the environmental history of the nearest regions of outer space. Tracing changes in the orbital landscape and in the political landscape below during the Cold War, concurrent with the rise of mainstream environmentalism, this book reveals the roots of an international understanding of the remote, illegible region between Earth and outer space as a natural environment at risk. In examining space artifacts as they move through and return from the planetary borderlands, Rand explores this extreme environment as a site of contested scientific moral authority, shifting values of consumption, and Space Age spatial politics. The history of space junk provides valuable, unprecedented context for an international space policy community considering how to safeguard humanity's future in our increasingly crowded cosmic neighborhood.

Lisa Ruth Rand earned her PhD from the Department of History and Sociology of Science in 2016. Her research plumbs the intersections of the histories of science, technology, and the environment during the Cold War, with a focus on mobile waste and contingent constructions of nature and sustainability. In addition to the environmental history of outer space, she has also written about gender in American aerospace culture and performances of scientific practice at Earth analog habitats. Rand's research has been supported by fellowships from NASA, the Society for the History of Technology, the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, the Penn Humanities Forum, and the Consortium for the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine. She is a Research Associate in the Department of Space History at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, an Adjunct Research Associate at the RAND Corporation, and a volunteer urban astronomy educator. Find out more at lisaruthrand.com.