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Bucknell students retrace Underground Railroad

LEWISBURG, Pa. – Bucknell University students and faculty spent two weeks in June exploring the Susquehanna River region – both on and off the river.

With core funding from a John Ben Snow Memorial Trust seed grant of $16,000, the scholars were first-year participants in a new program called the Susquehanna Valley Summer Writers Institute that focused on the river’s history and ecology in poems, essays and written histories of several river towns.

“This effort took environmental humanities and community studies at Bucknell on the road and on the water and out into the field to examine the interaction of texts and life,” said Katherine Faull, a professor of German and humanities whose research into early relations of American Indians and Moravian Christians near Bucknell’s campus formed one focus.

A selection of the writing and photography developed during the two weeks, June 7-19, is online at the in-progress Ruminations on the River website [].

In-the-field experiences included tracking the landscapes of Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon and James Fenimore Cooper’s The Deerslayer and retracing the Underground Railroad along the river near Bucknell where fruitful early cultural exchanges took place between Native Americans and Euro-Americans.

Students also visited several coal towns and spoke with conservationists and scientists about careers in “place-based” writing in the economy’s emerging green-collar sector.

Carmen Gillespie, a professor of English, poet and executive director of the Toni Morrison Society, helped to coordinate the institute and guided students to develop writing portfolios and think through issues of place-based poetry and prose.

“There are so many clichés about place that writing well about a specific location can be daunting,” said Gillespie. “I hope that we encouraged the students to examine and uncover the intersections of terrain, histories, narrative and identity and allowed them to come to a deeper and more complicated understanding of the Susquehanna region and river.” 

One of the last trips was a visit to the archives of the Northumberland County Historical Society, on the site of old Fort Augusta and near the Moravian blacksmith’s shop in the village of Shamokin, now Sunbury. Students and faculty saw materials from the old Works Progress Administration writers’ project, drawing together information about the area gathered in the 1930s.

“Today we’re back full circle,” said Alf Siewers, associate professor of English and faculty coordinator of the Nature and Human Communities Initiative of the Bucknell Environmental Center, [] which sponsored the Institute. “We’re thinking again, as during the Depression, of the power of place and of landscape, and their relation to writing and literature in the 21st century.”

The institute is part of the Cultures at the Confluence project of the Nature and Human Communities Initiative, which involves faculty and students in regional environmental humanities and community studies. 

The John Ben Snow Trust, based in Syracuse, N.Y., focuses on projects related to culture and the environment. 

Also participating in the institute’s workshop sessions were Ben Marsh, professor of geography and environmental studies; Susquehanna River Initiative Director Ben Hayes; Susquehanna University journalism professor Kate Hastings; SUNY-Oneonta biologist Bill Harman; community members; and the Otsego County Conservation Association.

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