Kate Harris Profile

Kate Harris (Ontario & Hertford 2006) is a writer with a grudge against borders and a knack for getting lost. Named one of Canada’s top ten adventurers by Explore magazine, she splits her time among expeditions, creative writing, and environmental policy reporting and analysis for the International Institute for Sustainable Development. She lives off-grid in a log cabin in northern British Columbia. Kate holds a Master’s in Geobiology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, an MPhil in History and Philosophy of Science and Technology from the University of Oxford, and a BS in Biology and Geology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Rhodes Project: Where do you call home?

Kate Harris: I grew up in southwestern Ontario, and most of my family still lives there, so that’ll always be a home of sorts. But my current and adopted home is the near-ghost town of Atlin in British Columbia, bordering the Yukon and Alaska. This region enchanted me as an undergraduate student, when I first visited it with the Juneau Icefield Research Program (or “JIRP” – a summer glaciology field school), and I vowed I’d move here someday. It took me nearly a decade but eventually it happened. It’s the end of the road, in all the best ways.

 Rhodes Project: When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?

Kate Harris: An explorer. I was obsessed with the expedition narratives of Ernest Shackleton, Fridtjof Nansen, Thor Heyerdahl, and Alexandra David-Neel; with the poetry of Robert Service; with anything far away and wild. But I despaired being born too late. Everything had already been explored, as far as I could tell as a kid - the tallest peaks climbed, the remotest continents mapped. So I figured my only option was to become an astronaut – and not just any astronaut, I wanted to become a Martian colonist, a planetary immigrant. I’ve since realized there are so many ways to explore, not least through words, through a metaphorical exegesis of what it means to be alive. Plus I’ve fallen so in love with this world I’d never want to leave it (at least not on a permanent basis).

Rhodes Project: What did you find most surprising about your time at Oxford?

Kate Harris: I enrolled in a history of science program at Oxford, thinking I’d spend a couple of years studying the impact of scientific ideas on the world before becoming a scientist myself. I’d been on such a science-focused academic trajectory until then, so this program was a chance to do something a little different – and a grand excuse to read all the expedition diaries I hadn’t yet devoured (Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle, Fanny Bullock Workman’s Ice-Wilds of the Karakoram, and more). In the process, I discovered that I loved reading and writing about science much more than I loved doing it in a laboratory. Writing my Master’s thesis – on the history, science, and geopolitics of the Siachen glacier, a contested frontier in Kashmir – didn’t really feel like work, but a kind of deep play. I did continue on in science after Oxford, but the experience only confirmed my heart wasn’t in it. So Oxford was a pivotal time for me, the beginning of my writing life and my fascination with borders.

Beyond that, though related to it, my time there made me less of a ruthless crusader for science. The courses I took – on imperial science and exploration, on the history of evolutionary theory – forced me to question my previously swerveless faith in science as the best, truest system for making sense of the world. The history of science is a history of dazzling ideas and impacts, but devastating impacts as well. From the discovery of nuclear fission, we got nuclear power (itself a debatable achievement), but also Hiroshima. From the theory of evolution by natural selection, we got the intellectual foundation for modern genetics and medicine and a “scientific” justification for eugenics, taken to the extreme by the Nazis. Meanwhile the history of exploration is riddled with atrocities, not least the systematic colonization of indigenous cultures. So any enterprise with the potential to do tremendous good can also do tremendous harm. My time at Oxford widened my eyes and mind to these ambiguities, the difficult borderlands between true and false, right and wrong.

Rhodes Project: Given the great capacity science has to do both good and harm, what role do you think government policy and regulation should play in scientific discovery, if any? 

Kate Harris: I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the double-edged sword of science, and I don’t really have any good answers. Scientists require intellectual autonomy; they need to wander in whatever direction interests them, do research for the sake of research. Their job is to open Pandora’s box. But how do you allow the free development of scientific knowledge and then step in and control its applications? I guess we need strong government policies that aren’t strong-armed by corporate interests, that consider the long-term risks of scientific discoveries.

Rhodes Project: What’s the most beautiful place you’ve visited?

Kate Harris: Tibet. Especially the western part of the plateau. It’s illegal to travel there without permits and a Chinese-sanctioned “guide,” but I’ve snuck in twice on a bicycle with friends, trying to see the Tibet that China didn’t want us see. It’s so beautiful and sad it hurts to think about.

Another place is the McMurdo Dry Valleys. This is a weirdly ice-free region of the Antarctica, bare dirt except for glaciers surging between mountains. A place as wide-open and beautiful as Mars, only it’s possible to breathe there without supplemental oxygen.

 Rhodes Project: Tell me about a challenge you’ve faced while on the road.

Kate Harris: I often travel to places where young people don’t grow up with the opportunities for education and exploration that I’ve had, simply by fluke of the borders I was born into. I can bike into remote villages on the frontier of Tajikistan and Afghanistan, but more crucially, I can bike out of them. That basic mobility is a privilege inconceivable to so many. As a writer, the challenge is to go out there, bear witness, and bring those stories back. To use the privileges I’ve been granted to dismantle the inequities that created them in the first place.

Rhodes Project: What’s something you’ve learned about yourself while traveling?

Kate Harris: I have an unslakable desire for and terror of uncertainty. I dread routine, waking up and knowing exactly what every hour of every day will bring, a life dictated by to-do lists and bottom lines. What a waste of the sense of wonder we’re born with! So when traveling, and generally, I try to seek out the opposite – uncertainty. Of course once I find it I’m left shaken and unnerved, but that’s the point. If things are smooth and sure, if none of your old notions are upended, you’re not really traveling, you’re on holiday. There’s nothing wrong with holidays, but I mostly prefer adventures – until I’m having one, and all outcomes are uncertain, and I’d suddenly give anything to be at a ski resort. “Do I contradict myself?” asked Walt Whitman. “Very well then I contradict myself (I am large, I contain multitudes.)” Traveling has taught me that I, too, contain multitudes.

Rhodes Project: What would an ideal day look like?

Kate Harris: I’d wake up before dawn in my cabin, start a fire in the woodstove, brew some coffee, and sit down to write, my dog tucked at my feet. After five or six hours of churning out words that miraculously require no amendment (it’s my ideal day, after all), I’d head on a hike or a bike ride, maybe go fishing – basically get outside to reacquaint myself with the raw, physical world, the wildness words can barely beckon at. Eventually I’d head home, pan-fry the lake trout caught – if I was lucky - that afternoon, and eat it for dinner with friends. (And because it’s my ideal day, someone else would do the dishes!)

Rhodes Project: If you had unlimited resources to devote to any one issue, global or local, what would it be and why?

Kate Harris: Dissolving the borders that divide people. Which isn’t so much a matter of knocking down walls and dismantling barbed wire – though I wouldn’t mind some of that, especially for the sake of wildlife – but waking people up to the fact that this is one small planet and nothing, truly nothing on it, exists in isolation. What happens in a factory in Bangladesh matters in Canada, what happens to glaciers in Nepal matters in Fiji. We’re all complicit, we’re all connected. Political borders tend to fortify the opposite notion, and that kind of blinkered, biased perspective is at the root of so much heartache in the world, so much greed. I’d use unlimited resources to educate and inspire people – through art, literature, science – to recognize the complex interdependency of life on Earth, this pale blue dot we all call home.

Rhodes Project:  If you could go anywhere in the world right now, where would you go and why?

Kate Harris: I would love to go to the far north, the high Arctic – Axel Heiberg, Ellesmere, Baffin Island, Greenland. Preferably by sailboat or skis. I’d love to see it as it exists now because, regrettably, I can’t see it as it was a century ago, and if I wait a few more decades it’ll be unrecognizable. The climate up there – everywhere, but especially there – is changing so rapidly. For better and worse, the world can never be fully mapped.

Back to Scholar Profiles F-J

© 2013