top of page



Graduate Student Paper prize


Graduate students are invited to develop research to share at the Environmental Congress in June, 2025. Paper project proposals will be judged competitively. The application form for this process can be found here. The funding of winning honoraria is intended to subsidize Congress attendance, and mentor student researchers toward publication. Our goal is to fund as many as twenty honoraria. The basic criterion for successful proposals is simple:  strong evidence of a serious environmental humanities research project that relates specifically to the Indiana Dunes, the Calumet Region, or the Great Lakes. The application form when you are ready is at this link.  Please see the Research Resources web page for applied research help. In order to stimulate thought on  possible topics, here are some thematic suggestions:





Research Paper Themes (Suggestions, Ideas, Possibilities)

Rhetorics of Industry, Ecology, and Resistance in Calumet History


The 20th century effort to save the Indiana Dunes is the story of a great social movement. The Dunes State Park owes its existence to women movement organizers such as Bess Sheehan and Dorothy Buell. State Senator Paul Bradley spoke some of the most memorable words of the movement in 1966: “When I was young, I wanted to save the world. In my middle years I would have been content to save the country. Now I just want to save the dunes.” What can we learn from the history of this struggle? How did working people from the local communities learn to speak truth to power? What parts of the public record of this period need to be excavated and explored? How does this local movement fit within larger (national and transnational) histories and geographies of environmentalism?


The Parks, the Public, and the Art of Interpretation 


If you visit public parks in the U.S. you soon learn that “interpretation” is the word that natural scientists, environmental preservationists, and parks stewards have chosen to describe the work they do in helping the public understand their relationship to the land. What can we learn by examining the monuments, markers, signs, and practices that interpret nature for visitors of the Dunes? What are the implications of the word “interpretation” as the name for this educative task? What disciplinary history is behind the term as a method of public communication and understanding? Are there fruitful connections between these public practices and the venerable discipline of interpretation?


Models and Metaphors:  A Battle of Paradigms at the Birth of Ecology


The pivotal role of the Indiana Dunes in the development of modern ecological science revolves around the wondrous geographical and biological diversity that the botanist Henry Chandler Cowles found here, and led him to challenge the war-of-each-against-all social Darwinism that dominated nature science in that era. Cowles’ own pluralist, democratic ethos of “commensalism” was fed by the currents of transcendentalist pragmatism coursing through the Midwestern region of the United States at the time. The outcome of this competition between two metaphors for conceptualizing the progress of natural systems is therefore decisive for the field of ecology of itself, so understanding the role of the complex ecosystems of the Calumet Region is crucial for understanding the field. Paradigm shifts in science are culturally embedded processes inextricable from the world they inhabit.


Dream Cities, Enchanted Forests, and the Utopian Imaginary


In 1927 a local ski club built the world’s largest ski jump on an Indiana dune. In 1935 a realtor hauled fantasy homes from the Chicago World’s Fair on barges across the lake to set up a new residential Dunes development. In 1957 a 33 acre amusement park known either as the “Enchanted Forest” or “Playground of the Dunes” opened and ran for 33 years. That the Indiana Dunes have survived at all against the insatiable appetite of extractive industrial developers is in part because it fed the Utopian imagination of local residents, politicians, and publics. What were the mechanisms of this dreamwork of the public imaginary? What was its history in the Calumet Region? What are the social implications of its complex and conflicting world-building energies, interests, and imperatives? Is there an ecopoetics of the Dunes or Great Lakes that imagines for us a more just future?


Dunes Ecology and the Democratic Imaginary


The teeming geologic, botanical, and animal diversity and pluralism of dune country, its tamarack and sphagnous swamps, marram grass, sand cherry, and basswood, its fens, bogs, marshes, swales, kettle lakes, moraines, prairies and deciduous forests, are a goad to reimagining the possibilities of democratic co-habitation. The complex dunes ecology of disturbance, displacement, erosion, succession, resistance, and resilience is not unlike the pluralist impulses of democratic societies. According to J. Ronald Engel, “no topographic form is less stable than a dune” as it is a form that is “constantly being made and unmade and remade,” and is the locus of plant communities that “produce and reform their own conditions of evolution.” Does the ecology of the Dunes suggest analogs for new conceptions of self-governance?   


Land Interests, Investments, Passions, and Desires:  Is Dialogue Possible?


The topography of the Dunes is a living map of competing human interests. Land along the lake is a radically heterogeneous patch quilt of expropriating industries, sacred lands, utopian communities, and recreational dreamscapes. This is because the Calumet is not just a space of ground, but a history of encounters between settlers, colonizers, activists, workers, tourists, industrialists, scientists, politicians, and homeowners. Even today the Calumet is a strange carnival of communities sharing a small but precious place on earth. It is marked, scarred even, by a peculiar mixture of the sacred and the profane. How should we talk with each other in such diverse communities of purpose? What can we accomplish together here? Can we generate common values we can build on? Is there an irresolvable tension between environmental justic and dialogic community?


Beyond the Priorities of Humans


Over its long history, the Dunes and Lakes have inspired an impulse in thoughtful communities to look beyond their own narrow temporary self-interest to something greater. When the insatiable appetite of industrial expansion left gaping wounds in the land, when industrial waste killed pristine rivers and lakes, as global warming now unbalances the fragile ecosystems of the region and coughs up its own signs of a sixth extinction, we have to find ways to elevate the testimony of nature against the violent cost of human mastery. How can we push back against the human-centric perspectives that most of us for most of our histories have taken for granted? How can the widely shared love of this special place on earth be leveraged to let our threatened earth speak? Will climate change have a say (the last word?) in the conversation that we are co


Names, Naming Rights, and the Identity of Public Lands


“What’s in a name?” Juliet asks, and the answer for her turns out to be everything. Naming lies at the fraught intersection of history, political power, scientific knowledge, and personal identity; it confers rights, marks territories, creates fortunes, makes enemies, conjures identities, mobilizes passions. The power of naming circulates around the lakes and dunes of our region from the earliest times. Although dispossessed of their lands and force marched from their homes, Native Americans conferred indelible names that endure like haunting reminders and promissory notes. These dune habitats have continually outstripped our capacity to name and classify and catalog the botanical, zoologic, and oceanic life, while the names of cities and towns and roads and grounds cover over as much as they reveal. Recent political maneuvering over the names our parks are still fresh and begging for analysis.


The Color of Citizenship in Great Lakes History


In the early 1800s, the U.S. Cavalry lead the Potawatomi and Ottawa Indians on the “trail of tears” along the Great Sauk Trail in the area. In the early 20th century the KKK began organized actions in the region to stir up anti-Semitic passions, scaling Mount Tom to burn a cross. Blacks attended segregated camping programs and swimming pools until the 1960s. Even today the geography of the Calumet is marked by the physical evidence of redlining, white flight, community disinvestment, and urban decay, the physical witness to our greatest national sin. If we are ever to make serious progress against these inequities, we need to hear the silenced voices of those who know these realities most deeply, and understand better their causes. Will the new double track rail line from Chicago bring prosperity for all, or exacerbate existing divisions? How will the Dunes respond to the influx of tourists and bedroom communities?


Queering the Great Lakes


Gilles Deleuze wrote that humans “cannot live, nor live in security, unless they assume that the active struggle between earth and water is over, or at least contained.” We know from prodigious studies of these Dunes and Lakes by botanists, geologists, ecologists, movement historians, environmentalists, social theorists and philosophers, that the unending struggle and cooperation between land, water, and people challenges us always to be better. But how can the new eco-criticism, eco-feminism, queer ecology, deep ecology, post-human theory, and all our burgeoning critical environmental studies orient us better to our ongoing work to save the Dunes, the Calumet, and the Lakes? What is misplaced or misguided about the conceptual frameworks we conventionally bring to our environmental studies and movement politics?


Nature and Spirit


Throughout its histories, this region of lakes and dunes has inspired communities to find or invest spiritual meaning in its haunts and byways. Native Americans have always challenged European colonists to shun the rationalist dualisms that separate mind, body, world, and spirit, and environmental activists who led the fight to save the dunes in the 20th century were deeply influenced by this lesson. For them the dunes became a civic religion and a social gospel that tied their aspirations for democratic pluralism in the sociopolitical arena to the wisdom of the land. The transcendentalist spirit of Emerson and Thoreau fed the organicist and communalist paradigms of science and culture, while the holistic philosophies of Native traditions invited secular thought to question its rationalist prejudices.



We expect to offer generous award stipends to encourage student research in  environmental humanities and philosophy on the region, as well as to support conference attendance. Stay tuned to this page for announcements, and contact us with your questions at dutsler [at] gmail [dot] com.


We have developed a resource page with links to publicly available research on the Indiana Dunes, Great Lakes ecology, and the history of the Calumet Region. Consider consulting these materials as you develop your research project.


We encourage you to contact us if you have questions as we move forward with the competition.


Get to Know Us


We also need volunteers to be mentors and judges to curate submitted work. In either case please write to:  David Utsler (dutsler [at] gmail [dot] com), or John Arthos (jarthos [at] indiana [dot] edu) 

bottom of page