Finding Environmental Stories: An Interview with Jenny Price

 Jenny Price

Jenny Price

Jenny Price has an unconventional view on the human interaction with the environment.


She wants us to “stop saving the planet” and before her current position at Princeton, took locals and tourists on ranger-led nature tours of Los Angeles. She asks the question not too many people think about regarding why we tend not to think of the environment as something that can be funny and looks for environmental awareness in places it usually may not be considered.


Price moved into her projects along a somewhat unexpected path.


Price’s friend, who had been a park ranger in Alaska and was working on an art project, had an idea to start a ranger project in LA. Soon enough, Price was putting on the Park Service uniform and joining in on the project. Donning her hat, she gave lectures along the hikes, telling stories of urban nature, as the program became more established.


In addition to leading these walks, Price, author of “Thirteen Ways of Seeing Nature in L.A.” and Flight Maps: Adventures with Nature in Modern America and creator of many projects, developed an app that was related to one of the talks she gave: how to legally access and enjoy Malibu beaches.


“It was helpful when we picked a project if we already had a body of research so it also seemed like the perfect opportunity,” she said. “I was really, really engaged in issues of public space and really fascinated by the problems of public space in Los Angeles, I thought that was an important issue.”


From the beautiful beaches of Malibu to the concrete encrusted LA River, Price was drawn to these two very different public spaces that are essential to the city, but do not necessarily function in the way the term public space would entail.


That is one of the major reasons why Price has been so enticed by this city. It is a city that has really “squandered” its natural beauty, a place of extreme inequalities, among other extremes, and insufficiencies of park space.


“Well if it were the place you know I want it to be it wouldn’t be much fun to write about it,” she said.


Price’s environmental interests can’t be sourced to one single point, but a chain of experiences throughout her life.


As a kid from the Midwest, like many, she would hop in the station wagon with her family and travel to the national parks, spending summers hiking in Colorado and making sure to get out of the car frequently. She believed these trips, her time at camp, and other experiences made her a “nature kid.” Once in college, her love of birds drove her to become a biology major.


When working down in the Amazon on her senior thesis on the natural history of the white-winged trumpeter, she fell out of a tree that caused her to need to take another year off from Princeton. She had to rethink the kind of work she would be able to do.


“I became interested in history because I think for the first time in my life that the present is constrained by the past and I think that was really just very simple cause and effect from the knee injury so I stumbled into environmental history,” she said.


This new path led her to go for her PhD at Yale, studying with environmental historian William Cronon. During this period, her interest in cultural analysis grew.


“I always wanted to be writer so when I got to LA I thought I was going to be a writer and write about this stuff,” she said. “Having stumbled into these art practices and the app and various other formats now, I think of it more as from my love of storytelling and I love storytelling around environmental issues in particular. “


These environmental stories can be found anywhere from down LA to the national parks, and she herself enjoys them in different ways.


“My whole career is about this cultural critique of the meanings of these places but at the same time, I think that those meanings are culturally specific and they are useful and appropriate for certain times and places and so it shouldn’t, I don’t think it should ruin your experience.


“A lot of those meanings are still really powerful for me but if I spent my whole career deconstructing. A lot of that is about solitude and it is about getting away from the city and I think there’s nothing wrong with that you just can’t say that that’s universally important,” she said.


Much of the experience for Price is the way that these places can challenge one’s routine interaction with the environment.


“You have to be sure that you don’t get wet or that you don’t get cold because there are actual real consequences and I like that you have to pack up properly,” she said. “When I camp or when I hike, I like that framework of taking care of things in a way that requires you to really pay attention.”


From a peak in Rocky Mountain National Park to the banks of the LA River, nature and its role in human life and experiences are underlying or very evident. Jenny Price continues to finds the stories.


- Allison Bart, UPenn C'16 & PPEH Fellow 2014-2015