Year End Report 2020/2021 for “On the sea and coastal ecologies: early modern pasts and uncertain futures”

Tiffany Jo Werth, University of California, Davis

“Earth, Sea, Sky” (ESS) is an international research network collaborating with, and under the umbrella of, Oecologies. It fosters new international dialogue in studies of medieval and early modern literature and visual culture. Its central aim is to examine the varied and contested premodern approaches to the natural world, as well as how this premodern archive resonates with contemporary concerns around environmental degradation and global warming. This research network spans three years, 2019-2022, with each year being devoted to one domain. In the past year, the Earth, Sea, Sky project focused on the medieval and early modern understandings of the sea. For a list of the research network members and their affiliations, including those whose work I describe below, please see the end of this post. 

As one of the leaders for the “Sea” node of the ESS network, it is my pleasure to reflect on our various research exchanges and to point you to the horizon for upcoming events.  While many of us missed the opportunity to gather face to face in 2020/2021, the “Sea” research network nonetheless created a vibrant, virtual space for ongoing conversations across oceans and continents. During the academic year, “Sea” participants held three virtual reading groups, two research exchanges for members, a jointly run graduate course, and two adjacent symposia co-sponsored by the University of California Irvine Early Cultures research group and the Clark Library. An overview of our activities can be viewed here:

We began in May of 2020 with a reading group that met via zoom to discuss Omise’eke Natasha Tinsley’s essay “Black Atlantic, Queer Atlantic: Queer Imaginings of the Middle Passage”

 (GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 14. 2-3 (2008): 191-215), selected by Mo Pareles.  The virtual discussion explored how the absence in the archives of records pertaining to queer experiences among enslaved persons creates the opportunity to reimagine what composes a scholarly archive and to speculate on what a queer philology might look like. 

In October of 2020, the reading group reconvened to discuss three essays chosen by Vin Nardizzi, Debapriya Sarkar, and Tom White to demonstrate diverse scholarly approaches to the sea: Helen M. Rozwadowski, “A Long Sea Story” from her Vast Expanses: A History of the Oceans (2018), and Renisa Mawani, “The Free Sea” from her Across Oceans of Law (2018), and, Surabhi Ranganathan’s ArcGIS collection of mini-essays, “The Law of the Sea” (2020). Although divided into three zoom break out rooms, each room contributed its own oceanic ecological thread with conversations exploring relationships between depth and surface, especially the etymology of “fathom-line” as a means of thinking about “ocean as method.” 

In December, international members of the ESS network met via zoom to do a brief research exchange: Todd Borlik, Debapriya Sarkar, Liam Lewis, and Bronwen Wilson each presented work-in-progress. Borlik connected a map from Olaus Magnus’s Carta Marina (1539) to the ongoing conflict over fishing rights in Scandinavia. Sarkar explored Lady Mary Wroth’s Urania (1621) to investigate how the representation of islands and shores reflect the imperial ambitions of England. Lewis explored medieval representations of noise and sound to show how they are culturally managed and can, if understood, have positive effect on the wildlife of the ocean. Wilson discussed how the compass, or wind rose, might mediate between the abstract lines of a cartographic grid and the elemental force of the sea and embodied viewers. 

In January, the University of California multi-campus faculty working group came together for a formal zoom research share event. Presentations from Andrés Reséndez, Lyle Massey, Yve Chavez, Benjamin Madley, Zirwat Chowdhury, and Bronwen Wilson focused on their current research into early depictions of coastal ecologies. A common thread in the exchange was the lack of scholarly focus on the Pacific Coast as a vibrant place of early modern exchange. A full report of that gathering can be found here: 

In winter term, Lyle Massey and Bronwen Wilson conducted graduate seminars on the Sea at University of California, Irvine and University of California, Los Angeles. The classes came together for four meetings to engage with invited speakers, one of whom was Kevin Dawson from University of California Merced. They also co-led a reading group on the topic of “Notes from the Artic,” which included discussions of two texts: “Arctic Ink” by Christopher Heuer (2019) and “Going Glacial” by Lowell Duckert (2017). In the discussion that followed, the group noted how early modern Western explorers grappled with writing about the Arctic, finding its elemental conditions to defy human modes of representation. 

In April, the “Sea” working group partnered with the Center for Early Cultures to present “Sea Sense” ( The conference spotlighted both narrative and representational aspects of the distinction in the early modern period between land and sea. Presenters explored the possibilities that oceans offer for “thinking with ecocriticism in a deep historical context.” The three day event included a roundtable discussion of Kevin Dawson’s book Undercurrents of Power: Aquatic Culture in the African Diaspora, a keynote by Steve Mentz on “Swimming out of Africa, 50,000 BCE to ‘The Tempest,’” a special presentation of the coauthored volume Conchophilia: Shells, Art, and Curiosity in Early Modern Europe, anda joint lecture by Jeffrey Cohen and Julian Yates on “How to Think Like an Ark.” A graduate student conference closed the symposia with papers on “The Sea: Mobility, Ingenuity, and Ecology in the Early Modern World.” A link to the video of the Sea Sense conference is available here: 

Finally, in May, an associated symposium, From Sea to Sky: Early Modern Horizons, co-organized by Vin Nardizzi and Bronwen Wilson was hosted by the Clark Library at University of California, Los Angeles. It featured talks by faculty members Robert Watson, Ayasha Guerin, Joseph Monteyne, and Bronwen Wilson, as well as a graduate student panel with Nicolyna Enriquez, Abigail Berry, and Cynthia Fang. For abstracts of the talks, see 

Two additional events, a reading group to be led by Andrés Reséndez (UC Davis) and myself on the history and scholarship around the contested landing and location of Sir Francis Drake’s “fair and good bay” and a concluding symposium in conversation with the faculty from the UC Davis Coastal Science Institute at the Bodega Bay Marine Lab, have been postponed to 2022 due to ongoing regulations regarding COVID-19. Stay tuned for updates about these events in the coming year. 

Meanwhile, in August, we look forward to some of our members participating in a digital Environmental Humanities conference on the topic of “Transtemporal Seascapes” hosted by the KTH Environmental Humanities Laboratory in Stockholm, Sweden.

All of these digital events have been supported by various partner institutions, and their assistance with organizing and their commitment to our project have been critical to the success of these meetings. We look forward to developing further these connections and research along the Pacific Coast with our national and international partners in research.

PI: Tiffany Jo Werth, Department of English UC Davis 

Co-PI’s: Lyle Massey, Department of Art History, UC Irvine and Bronwen Wilson, Department of Art History UCLA. 

University of California Humanities Research Institute Multicampus Faculty Working Group:

Yve Chavez, History of Art and Visual Culture, UC Santa Cruz

Zirwat Chowdhury, Art History, UC Los Angeles

Kevin Dawson, History, UC Merced

Benjamin Madley, History, UC Los Angeles

Andrés Reséndez, History, UC Davis

Charlene Villaseñor Black, Art History, UC Los Angeles

Mike Ziser, English, UC Davis

International cohort: 

Hilary Eklund, English, Loyola University, New Orleans

Liam Lewis, French Literature, University of Liverpool 

Vin Nardizzi, English, University of British Columbia 

Mo Pareles, English, University of British Columbia 

Debapriya Sarkar, English and Maritime Studies, University of Connecticut 

Tom White, English, Oxford University  

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