Moving Mountains: Memory, Identity, and the Geological Imaginary after Landslide Disasters


My AHRC Research, Development and Engagement Fellowship explores the legacies of mountains that move. Mountains are often thought to be dormant landmarks, but they exist in constant and vibrant motion. Sometimes, their movements upset the course of history. Landslides and earthquakes unleash spontaneous destruction. This project examines the lasting imprints that they leave on people, communities, and places. I set out to discover how the challenges of recovery are navigated in the cultural imaginary among societies destroyed by landslides. Across two communities, I compare the roles of collective memory, visual narratives, commemoration, and storytelling in rebuilding lives that have been shattered by mountain disasters. I seek to determine how mountains shape memories, fears, and aspirations after causing widespread devastation.

In highlighting the animate qualities of mountains, this project contributes to lively debates on the anthropocene. We have entered a geological age that is marked by human activity. Our tracks on the crust of the earth may be uncovered by our descendants. Some theorists conceive of the environment as an influential actor that has facilitated the behaviour which leaves these markings. By providing the natural resources that have fueled industrial growth, the environment -- so the argument goes -- has contributed to an extractive model of development. Others maintain that humans alone are responsible for this fate. It is capitalism that has altered the structural composition of our planet, and not planetary motion. For this school of thought, our extractive practices may put an end to life as we know it. They compromise the very notion that our present will be legible to future generations.

My research enters into this debate by investigating mountains that move for different reasons. On the one hand, I look at the legacy of the 1966 disaster in Aberfan, which was caused by negligent tipping practices, and which contributed to the contraction of the mining industry as it then existed in Britain. On the other hand, I study the legacy of a landslide that buried the Peruvian town of Yungay in 1970, triggered by an earthquake, where recovery from the disaster was predicated on the expansion of regional mining. Taken together, these responses show how geological disasters can accelerate shifts
in a world economy that is predicated on the cheap extraction of minerals. The evolution of humanity has shaped our planet. The shape of our planet has conditioned our movements.

This convergence serves to implicate distant and different societies that otherwise seem disconnected. These communities have important stories to tell about mountains that move, about places that disappear, and about identities that are tied to environmental devastation. To uncover these stories, I search in regional archives and listen to survivors and their families. I visit memory sites and observe commemorative activities to understand how identities coalesce around these events and landmarks. I read testimonial works and fictional texts to appreciate how communication and creativity can mitigate the trauma imparted by disaster. In a series of school workshops, I map these places as they exist today, as they have been shaped by landslides in the past and as they rebuild towards the future.

With these research findings, I will create an engaging body of work that includes a book, an edited volume, a book chapter, a series of podcasts, and a set of educational resources. My outputs will stimulate a conversation between the related but disparate fields of disaster studies, memory studies, and geological humanities. They will emphasize that disasters are planetary processes and that responses to disasters are configured by planetary structures. Most importantly, my research valorizes the experiences of those who are most familiar with the movements of mountains, and who might teach us about their impacts.

Previous iterations of this project have examined the cultural history of landslides in Vargas, Venezuela and Armero, Colombia, and were sponsored by AHRC Language Acts, the British Council, and the Newton Fund. 

Project website