By Gary Stein
Graduate school is a marathon. There are numerous “markers” along the way, certain mementos of the necessary hills to climb in order to reach the finish line, PhD in hand. There is finishing coursework, becoming a TA, passing your qualifying exams, honing in on a Prospectus for your dissertation, and finally, completing the dissertation – in many respects the final lap and main event and group relay all rolled into one.
I am currently in my 2nd year, so I am almost done with coursework and am in the midst of my 2nd semester as a TA. I also came to USC with an MA in History, so I have been holding the baton for some time now and am working on crafting a dissertation topic. In this post, I hope to articulate some of the ideas brewing in my head at this moment (though as many grad students know, one week can bring an entirely different set of ideas, hopes, doubts, dreams…than the one before it). I will share some of my experiences that have led me to this point and have (for the most part!) enhanced this long and winding process.
“Building a Communal Environment: Back-to-the-Land in Mendocino,” my Master’s Thesis, analyzed the 1960s-70s back-to-the-land movement in Northern California, particularly in the coastal rural towns of Mendocino County. A key intervention of the thesis was highlighting the contributions of back-to-the-landers to the modern environmental movement and their role in heightening the ecological consciousness of mainstream society. It argued that back-to-the-landers, like those in Mendocino, did not merely “drop out” and live communally for a short, insignificant period of time. They remained politically and socially active and committed to ecological principles and working cooperatively within a group. I looked at back-to-the-land communes that lasted for over 20 years, contributed to the proliferation of food co-ops, the availability of organic foods, and the fight against agribusiness and corporate agriculture. These migrants helped shape the culture that endures in the North Coast region. They built their own unique dwellings using as little of the earth’s space and resources as possible and succeeded in legalizing their structures. They fought to save local forests from clearcutting, over harvesting, and the spraying and injecting of herbicides, and they continue to fight for these and other environmental initiatives today.
Their main objective of moving to the country was effecting change through lived experience, making the personal political. The idea proved central to the activism of the 1960s and is an important component of modern environmentalism, in addition to the more familiar legislative and institutional gains. This work led me to think about different conceptions of the environmentalist ethic and how different modes of living causes, or becomes, conscious efforts to preserve and/or improve the landscape. I am interested in analyzing who gets to be included in those decisions as well as the groups that have historically been excluded or disregarded.
I continue to be fascinated by people’s relationship with, and perceptions of, nature. I have previously written about the Civilian Conservation Corps, post-WWII suburbanization, and the development of natural and historic preservation in the 20th century. In our Western History seminar with Professor Bill Deverell, I wrote about the formation of the Pacific Crest Trail, a “wilderness way” connecting the borders of Mexico and Canada through California, Oregon, and Washington. I then looked at the fight over Mineral King, a proposed ski resort by Walt Disney in Sequoia National Forest in the mid-1960s. The Forest Service had traditionally adhered to Gifford Pinchot’s “wise use” model, prioritizing timber and other commodity resources. But I argue that this began to shift in the 1930s, in part due to the work of the CCC and the formation of the PCT, which opened up numerous national and state parks and forests and contributed to greater wilderness preservation efforts and a growing appreciation for outdoor recreation. This pushed the Forest Service to value non-commodity resources such as outdoor recreation. But it also led the Service to utilize the “wise use” model for recreational development, such as Disney’s plans for the massive ski resort. The proposal was protested by the Sierra Club and young environmentalists who incorporated the values and grassroots activism of the movements of the 1960s to their fight to save Mineral King. The proposal was eventually defeated and Mineral King became part of Sequoia National Park, under the supervision of the Park Service.
As I consider and prioritize larger questions within my own work, some or all of this could become central to my dissertation, or I could end up going in another direction. That, in part, is the process of graduate school. It can be exciting, enlightening, frustrating, and daunting. But I have gained a lot from the entire experience, and though I still have a long way to go, I can sense the final lap on the horizon. I am grateful to have worked in Western Environmental history, examining how people are shaped by their environment as much as they shape the world around them. And as a native of Queens, NY, I am thrilled to continue learning about the culture and environment of the American West and its integral place in American history.
Gary Stein received his undergraduate degree in history from Queens College, a City University of New York (CUNY) and his Master’s in History from Claremont Graduate University. His Master’s Thesis received the Center for Communal Studies Graduate Paper Prize in 2017. Stein joined USC’s Ph.D. program in 2016.