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Woods, Water, World: Kaplan ’23 on 50 years of environmental studies

February 3, 2023

Maine is a paragon of serene, pristine natural beauty, but has also been affected by pollution and other environmental harm. Lizzy Kaplan ’23 honors Maine’s environmental history—and celebrates 50 years of environmental studies at the College—in her exhibit “Woods, Water, and World: Environmental Studies at Bowdoin College.”

Though Bowdoin’s environmental studies department was founded in 1972, the College’s relationship with the environment dates much further back.

“[The exhibit] starts at the founding of the College, and then it goes all the way to present day and some of the more future-looking things that are related to environmental studies,” Kaplan said.

Over the summer, Kaplan conducted primary and secondary research, often drawing from older research conducted by students—like an independent study for the 40th anniversary of environmental studies—and faculty. Kaplan chose to display the work of former Bowdoin professor and photographer John McKee in one of eight glass cases at the exhibit.

“[McKee] was commissioned by the art museum … to take a bunch of photos along the Maine coast, and that was a period of time where there was a ton of pollution in a bunch of different ways on the Maine coast, so he captured that … and [an] exhibit went on display in the art museum called ‘As Maine Goes,’” Kaplan said.

McKee’s exhibit takes its name from a saying dating back to the 19th century when Maine’s early-fall state elections filled a similar role as today’s first primaries do. The nation would often vote for the same party “as Maine goes.”

For Kaplan, there was much more to this expression than politics; in her exhibit, she posits Maine as a trailblazer in protecting the natural world. McKee’s photography, for example, helped prompt the Clean Water and Air Acts.

“As the environment changes in Maine, it’s kind of a symbol for the rest of the country,” Kaplan said.

Kaplan continues the tradition of Bowdoin community members who form a long and committed relationship to studying the local environment.

“There is an old handwritten journal that’s full of a faculty member’s observations about the weather every day in Brunswick. He did that for 30 years, and then when he died, all of that, what we would call metadata now, was sent to the Smithsonian, and so he’s part of … the coldest day on record [in Brunswick],” Special Collections Education and Engagement Librarian Marieke Van Der Steenhoven, who advised Kaplan, said.

Alongside dedicated faculty researchers, both Kaplan and Van Der Steenhoven stressed the important role students have in facilitating the growth of the environmental studies department and related movements on campus. In particular, two bulletin boards covered in student posters dating back to the 1960s symbolize the power of student voices.

“So much change at Bowdoin happens because of student activism, and thinking about how the environmental movement and environmental studies program developed because of student interest, it was faculty and staff working with the administration but also just the drive of students, and I always find that really inspiring,” Van Der Steenhoven said.

Kaplan noted, however, that the exhibit—and departmental history—lacks representation of many identities vital to studying the environment that have not always been welcomed to the College. She expressed her hope for a more diverse future in the environmental discourse at Bowdoin and beyond.

“I’m always optimistic that the future age can sort of be an emblem of hope and progression toward an environmental studies department and also just general concepts around the environment that are way more inclusive,” Kaplan said.

Despite the aesthetic and institutional changes Bowdoin has undergone, environmental studies remains a valued facet not just of Bowdoin’s academics but of the College as a whole.

“Environmental studies and the spirit behind it is everywhere in the College and also in the people who come to Bowdoin,” Kaplan said.

Kaplan’s exhibit is displayed on the second-floor gallery of Hawthorne-Longfellow Library through reunion weekend in June and will be published digitally on the Special Collections and Archives website.


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