Notes from the Coast: an Oecologies Reading Group

Ashley Sarpong, Yale University

On Earth Day, Friday, April 22, 2022, the Oecologies research cluster convened a final virtual reading group for the 2021-2022 year, led by Dr. Tiffany Werth, to discuss accounts of Sir Francis Drake’s 1579 landing in the San Francisco Bay area using an ecocritical lens. The discussion centered on three excerpts from the sixteenth-century narrative of Drake’s landing in the “fair and good bay” near San Francisco, and selections from two works of scholarship: Melissa Darby’s Thunder Go North: The Hunt for Sir Francis Drake’s Fair and Good Bay (University of Utah Press, 2019) and Matthew Morse Booker’s Down by the Bay: San Francisco’s History Between the Tides (University of California Press, 2013). Werth began the discussion with a return to Melody Jue’s “volumetrics,” which postulates thinking more firmly in terms of aquatic environs; it’s a term that has been a touchstone throughout our discussions of the “Sea” this year. In particular, Werth asked the group to consider: “What are methodologies through which we can theorize the coast aquatically and as a meeting place between sea and land?” Or, “how can we think about the coast as a place of exchange between earth and sea?”  

To begin, the group turned to Booker’s piece, a lyrical meditation on the bioregion of the San Francisco Bay, where indigenous Ohlone populations lived at “the bay’s edge” (23) and where millions of others live today.  Booker emphasizes the variability over time of both coasts and sea levels, which place the coast in a dynamic relationship with the sea and with human practices of urbanization and land reclamation. Moreover, the group considered how the coast can be understood in terms of infrastructures. As Booker explains, “the ports, the industrial districts and downtown skyscrapers, and the rail network and highways…maintains a powerful regional economy… [yet] [m]ost people rarely notice this infrastructure and fewer recognize that natural places are part of the productivity that society depends upon” (4). As such, the group considered how the coast functioned as a meeting place between the sea and the earth as well as a dialectic between the human and non-human world.

After this analysis of Booker’s piece, the group turned to the primary texts: descriptions Sir Francis Drake’s landing near the San Francisco Bay in “The famous voyage of Sir Francis Drake…about the whole globe of the earth, begun in the year of our Lord, 1577” as it appears in Hakluyt’s Principall Navigations (ed. Jack Beecher) and in the anthologies The Literature of Renaissance England ( eds. John Hollander and Frank Kermode) and The Norton Anthology of English Literature, 7th ed. (eds. George M. Logan, Stephen Greenblatt and Barbara K. Lewaslski). These different anthologies describe Drake’s arrival in a “fair and good bay, with good wind to enter the same.” The group analyzed how notions of value and skin color undergird this first encounter with the landscape. Additionally, the group examined Drake’s decision to name “this country Nova Albion, and that for two causes: the one in respect the white banks and cliffs which lie towards the sea; and the other, because it might have some affinity with our country in name, which sometimes was so called.” Drake’s decision to name the San Francisco Bay area a “new” England functions as an ecological analogy that links the “white cliffs” on the Pacific coast and England’s coast on the Strait of Dover.

Next the group turned to Melissa Darby’s text Thunder Go North. Of particular interest to the group were the ways in which the narrative(s) of Drake’s landing operated in an information blackout. Darby argues that “Drake’s land claim included a vast amount of territory he did not see, and therefore could not have legitimately claimed by the tenets of the time. Darby interrogates Drake’s claims by assessing the incomplete and concealed records of the voyage: “the latitudes he reached on the west coast of America were not the ones reported in the official record of the claim” (5). Strikingly, Darby compares the spiritual practices of indigenous peoples on the coasts of Oregon and southern Washington to the ethnographic descriptions of the indigenous peoples in the narrative of Drake’s landing, and she concludes that Drake likely landed in northern Oregon/southern Washington, not the San Francisco Bay. Placing the anthologized narratives in conversation with Darby’s attempts to correct the narrative, the group discussed the how Drake’s landing in “a fair and good bay” (of San Francisco or elsewhere) entangles the ecological, colonial, and ethnographic. This web, the group observed, featured prominently in the highly detailed description of Drake’s “set[ting] up a monument…of her Majesty’s right and title” to the land. This performance of land possession sparked a closing line of discussion: in the midst of a global reckoning with the legacies of colonial dispossession and the call to rename monuments to racist and colonial violences, should Drake’s landing still bear its name? Considering that Drake may not actually have landed in the place that bears his name (Drake’s Bay), what does it mean to rename something that never was?

By the end of the day’s discussion, it became clear that thinking about coasts meant thinking dialectically: the coast as a dialectic between ocean and land; the coast as a dialectic between the human and nonhuman; the coast as a dialectic between colonial exercises and indigenous life-ways. In this vital context of where sea meets land, this final conversation rounded out our discussions in November and March about premodern ecologies of “the Sea.”

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