Notes from “On the sea and coastal ecologies: early modern pasts and uncertain futures” Virtual Research Share

Kirsten Schuhmacher; University of California, Davis

On January 19th, 2021, the University of California Humanities Research Institute working group, “On the sea and coastal ecologies: early modern pasts and uncertain futures,” participated in a generative virtual research share. Led by Principal Investigator, Tiffany Jo Werth (UC Davis), the following members of the multicampus faculty working group gave presentations about their current research on early depictions of coastal ecologies: Andrés Reséndez (UC Davis), Lyle Massey (UC Irvine, Co-PI), Yve Chavez (UC Santa Cruz), Benjamin Madley (UCLA), Zirwat Chowdhury (UCLA), and Bronwen Wilson (UCLA, Co-PI).  To expand the premodern archive, presenters illustrated the need to work multimodally by focusing on literary texts, illustrations, and material artifacts.

A consistent thread in the research share was the attention to the Pacific Coast as an under-studied place of exchange. Many of the speakers thought through the movement between the “old” and “new” worlds from their current place within California. In this way, the speakers thought locally while also working in opposition to the better studied and understood early exchange networks on the Atlantic Coast. It was particularly enlightening when speakers brought together current issues on the Pacific Coast with past moments spanning more than two-hundred years. Benjamin Madley introduced a particularly pertinent example of this multi-temporality. His presentation looked at four different epidemics as the “invisible allies” of Europeans who colonized the western US between 1828 – 1844. His presentation drove home the critical importance of studying Pacific migrations of people and pathogens. 

The research share was unique not only given its focus on the Pacific Coast but also because of many presenters’ attention to non-European perspectives of the Pacific. For instance, Andrés Reséndez, as part of his Magellan Project, discussed ecological exchanges of goods such as the sweet potato, peanut, and corn, between China and the Americas, which ultimately helped the Chinese to expand their agriculture and use of silver. In addition, Zirwat Chowdhury examined one late 18th century English depiction of South Asian systems of writing and considered the implications of phonetics and their migration across the seas. 

As the research exchange came to a close, Tiffany Jo Werth reflected on some of the big concepts that spanned the presentations. I will draw attention to a couple here as particularly useful frameworks for thinking about and through the ocean and its coastal ecologies. For example, participants talked through Lyle Massey’s concept of “sea sense,” which she illuminated as a figurative as well as material concept of ocean as body. This discussion explored the porousness of coastal membranes and how their representation on maps illustrates the interpenetration of bodies of water and anatomy. Furthermore, participants created figurative maps that connected coastal materials, both manufactured and not, with humans and oceans alike. In one particular instance, Bronwen Wilson brought attention to an actual map and the use of the ship and compass on that map as a way to concretize the abstract through ornamentation. Additionally, many participants engaged with this porousness as a way to understand the exchange of goods, raw materials, and diseases as being part of the long history of the Pacific Coast. A material example of this occurred in Yve Chavez’s presentation of an 18th century Chumash basket in the British Museum. Her presentation posed questions about why such a basket was made and whether it was actually intended to be a “gift” for European explorers.

Another fascinating framework was born from a discussion on seasonal gyres and currents. By orienting themselves to these seasonal oceanic changes, the participants considered the ways that the ocean can and does exert its agency over the people that try to navigate it. Additionally, it allowed participants the chance to further illustrate the ways that the Pacific Coast is distinct given the unique particularities of the currents created by gyres and their impact on sailing routes as well as the season of travel. 

As an inaugural gathering of the multicampus faculty working group, the presentations provocatively introduced some of the issues that will receive attention in fall of 2021. There will be a symposium held at the UC Davis Coastal and Marine Sciences Institute at the Marine Lab in Bodega Bay, CA. This virtual research share is part of a series of events sponsored by the UCHRI in conjunction with the Earth, Sea, Sky research network. If you would like to learn more about the UCHRI working group, please visit: https://uchri.org/awards/on-the-sea-and-coastal-ecologies-early-modern-pasts-and-uncertain-futures/. For all updates on future “Sea” events, please consult the dedicated landing page: https://oecologies.com/earth-sea-sky/sea/

Finally, to help build our working bibliography on premodern coastal ecologies, please send relevant references to Laura Hutchingame: lhutchingame@ucla.edu

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