Notes from “Earth, Sea, Sky: An Environmental Humanities Research Network Exchange”

Laura Hutchingame, University of California Los Angeles

On 12 December 2020, an international group of scholars shared their research over Zoom, as part of the Earth, Sea, SkyOecologies working group. The scholars were Todd Borlik (University of Huddersfield); Debapriya Sarkar (University of Connecticut); Liam Lewis (University of Liverpool); and Bronwen Wilson (UCLA).

Todd Borlik discussed Olaus Magnus’s Carta Marina, a map printed in Venice in 1539,and proposed an ecocritical argument that  reads the Carta Marina as a vision of human monstrosity and insatiable hunger, which is ecologically self-destructive. Borlik pointed out that the commensurate size of ships and sea-beasts gives the impression of a reciprocal monstrosity; from the marine creatures’ point of view, the human ships would appear monstrous invaders. Borlik compared the Carta Marina to a map by Hendrick Hondius from 1636 in which bunches of fish hang from the cartouche, indicating that the oceans have been emptied, and that humans are the most significant predator on the seas.

Borlik showed, too, that the Carta Marina was part of a conflict about fishing rights in Scandinavia and that the monstrous elements in the map served to deter unauthorized fishing in Scandinavian waters. Further, Scotland is obscured on the map, despite the fact that Scotland enjoyed a claim to Scandinavian fisheries since the fifteenth century. Denmark had refused to acknowledge the treaty with Scotland, and Borlik suggested that the marriage of King James VI and I to Anne of Denmark might have been connected in part to politics surrounding Scandinavian fishing.

Debapriya Sarkar examined Lady Mary Wroth’s prose romance novel, Urania, published in 1621, to investigate how islands and shores function as a threshold, a liminal space, in the early modern imaginary. Islands and shores are prominent in early modern English literature and their presence in literature reflects the imperial ambitions of England. But the island is also the site of important oppositional forces. Sarkar focused on a particular moment that reveals a notable transfer of power.  In Wroth’s romance, the protagonist is an aristocratic woman who finds herself on an island, accompanied by her brother, Amphilanthus, who must throw her in the ocean in order to save her. Sarkar noted that as Urania enters the water, her emotional turmoil becomes transferred to the ocean. This, Sarkar argued, embodies  a maritime ecology connected to female subjectivity, which represents the dynamism of human emotion. 

Liam Lewis argued that representations of noise and sound are culturally managed, and that if we can become aware of how we manage these sounds, we can have positive effects on the wildlife in the ocean. Describing the history of the hydrophone in the twentieth century, which allowed underwater recording or listening, Lewis asked: how can we conceptualize sound before and after the hydrophone? In answer, Lewis focused on an illustration from the Irish Voyage of Saint Brendan, a manuscript produced in 1047-1048, and Jacques Cousteau’s 1956 film Le Monde du Silence, as representative cases. In the Voyage of Saint Brendan, Brendan and his brothers sail in search of paradise, and at a crucial point in the journey, Brendan sings loudly to the point of waking the ocean creatures, who join him in singing. Le Monde du Silence, one of the first films to use ocean cinematography to depict the ocean as an underwater paradise, is not silent at all. But most of the sounds that accompany the cinematography are not produced from the hydrophone, but rather overlaid sound effects to mimic the sound of sunken ships, scuba tank bubbles, minor keys for eerie moments, or trumpets for triumphant moments of exploration. In other words,  the techniques used to depict underwater life actually obscure the real sounds of that life.

The last speaker, Bronwen Wilson, considered the compass, or wind rose, to introduce the spaces of elemental forces in between the abstract cartographic grid and the embodied viewer of Willem Jansz. Blaeu’s Nova Totius Americae. She discussed how compasses operated visually. For instance, users become repositioned in relation to depicted terrains.  Compasses can also be pictorial signs, such as in maps made after Piri Reis’s Book of Navigation. Wilson focused on two prospects, by Guillaume-Joseph Grelot and by Melchior Lorck, both with the artists seen at work. She showed how the abstract line associated with the compass can be multivalent. Grelot’s drawing reveals an artist imagining himself as a human compass—the artist’s quill is similar to the compass needle. Similarly, Lorck’s Prospect of Constantinople emphasizes horizontal movement, and while the flatness of the compass rose typically suggests views seen from above, Lorck prompts the viewer to lay the paper flat and to think about the vertical axis in order to reconcile these two poles of the image. 

This research share was generative for those who were able to attend and we hope to see you again for an upcoming research share on 19 January 2021 by faculty members involved with the UCHRI working group: “On the sea and coastal ecologies: early modern pasts and uncertain futures.”

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