Northwest of Denver, there’s a stretch of U.S. Highway 40 called Rabbit Ears Pass that cuts through the Rocky Mountains. It’s named for the prominent Leporidae-shaped igneous rock formations that stand prominently atop a nearby peak, and the volcanic geology of the area began millions of years before the state of Colorado and the U.S. Forest Service blazed the high-mountain road through the range.
For Princeton faculty member Allison Carruth, the pass encapsulates the experiences and ideas of wilderness that defined her childhood. Her parents, avid mountaineers, taught her to ski on nearby slopes, which then burst with wildflowers in the summer months. Her family camped with her grandparents in Steamboat Springs, where her grandfather fly-fished; and they frequently drove over Rabbit Ears Pass, from the mountains to the high desert, to visit relatives in Wyoming. The route wasn’t just a state landmark; it represented a mythology of nature in the American West that also shaped family relationships. “I have such strong memories of snow-capped peaks in winter and wildflower blooms in summer,” Carruth said, “and coming up over a pass like that was incredibly romantic.”
Last August, Carruth drove from California to Princeton to relocate with her husband, Barron Bixler, an environmental documentary photographer who holds an appointment as art and media specialist at the University. On their journey, she crossed over Rabbit Ears Pass for the first time in years. What greeted her, however, was a visceral experience of ecological precarity. The beauty she remembered was literally obscured by dark clouds — smoke from the wildfires that were choking the West from Southern California to the Canadian border — and the bouquet of bright colors she associated with the pass seemed to be painted with ash. “There were so many fewer wildflowers than I remembered,” Carruth said. “Pausing at the summit of Rabbit Ears Pass, witnessing the effects of wildfire and bark beetle infestation, I realized that the forest was incredibly ill. It was haunting.”
The experience lingered with Carruth for the rest of the journey, underscoring how cherished places from childhood like Rabbit Ears Pass have been stressed to a breaking point — stresses amplified by climate change. A scholar of contemporary American culture and the cultural dimensions of current environmental challenges, Carruth arrived at Princeton a few weeks later to launch the Environmental Art + Media Lab, an innovative interdisciplinary center that conducts applied research and develops collaborative projects at the nexus of imagination and science.
“The lab aims to incubate experiments in imagining environmental histories and futures that connect art and science and envision livable futures,” said Carruth, who is jointly appointed to Princeton’s High Meadows Environmental Institute and the Effron Center for the Study of America. “How do we build a hub to bring environmental storytelling, environmental science and environmental action together?”
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