“On the Sea and Coastal Ecologies:Early Modern Pasts and Uncertain Futures”: A SEA symposium at the UC Davis Bodega Marine Laboratory May 19-20, 2022

“Sea,” the second part of multi-year collaboration “Earth, Sea, Sky,” took place at the UC Davis Bodega Bay Marine Laboratory in May.  The project’s principal investigators are Dr. Tiffany Jo Werth (University of California, Davis), Dr. Bronwen Wilson (University of California, Los Angeles), Dr. Lyle Massey (University of California, Irvine) and international collaborators, Dr. Vin Nardizzi (University of British Columbia) and Dr. Tom White (University of Oxford).

By: Lyle Massey (University of California, Irvine) and Vin Nardizzi (University of British Columbia)

Two years of scholarly events that focused on early modern conceptions of the Sea (which also comprised the second part of a multi-year, international collaboration on the theme of “Earth, Sea, Sky”) culminated in a conference held on May 19th and 20th, 2022, at the UC Davis Coastal and Marine Sciences Institute at Bodega Marine Laboratory in Bodega Bay, California. Organized by a UCHRI working group whose principal investigators are Tiffany Jo Werth (UC Davis), Bronwen Wilson (UCLA), and Lyle Massey (UC Irvine),  “On the sea and coastal ecologies: early modern pasts and uncertain futures” combined paper presentations and workshops exploring and addressing themes such as:

  • Queering oceanic voyages 
  • Sounding ocean depths and charting sea surfaces
  • Untangling coastal ecologies
  • Exploring horizons and poles
  • Representing “blue” geographies (islands, currents, flows, littorals, dikes)
  • Tracing flows of racial capital
  • Navigating the interfaces of early modern Environmental Humanities and current research in the marine sciences.

The Marine Laboratory is situated near the disputed landing of Sir Francis Drake in 1579, and thus was an appropriate setting for a conference intended to challenge early modern coastal narratives and reinvigorate scholarship on sea/land interfaces in colonial history. Originally home to the Helapattai, Hime-takala, Ho-takala, Suwutenne, Tiwut-huya, and Tokau, and the Geluatamal tribes (Coastal Miwok and Southern Pomo), the Marine Lab is now a scientific institution dedicated to studying ocean and coastal ecologies.

The conference began with a tour of the facilities that included a visit to the salt water tanks holding marine life, and was followed by a lecture on the history of the Bay, and on the second day, a guided walk around the reserve on the bluffs overlooking the ocean, during which whales, swimming parallel to the shore, were seen spouting.

Direct confrontation with the shore environment set the stage for the conference’s multiple, engaged questions about embodied interactions with the sea’s materiality. The first session of the first day brought together three papers, Liam Lewis (French, Liverpool) “Medieval Deluge and Drownings: Ovid and the Bestiary,” Sara Sisun (Art History, UC Irvine) “Consider the Lobster: Ecocriticism and the Early Modern Crustacean” and Todd Borlik (English, Huddersfield) “Pericles, the Fisheries, and the Ecomaterial History of Purple.” All three explored different ways in which the sea is imagined as a fecund medium from which religious, sexual and commercial identities are extracted, while also being represented as tamed and controlled even as it signals chaos.  The afternoon session was comprised of papers presented by Alison Maas (English, UC Davis) “Coast as Crisis: Narratives, Ecologies, and Politics of the California Coast,” Rachel Kase (Art History, Boston University) “Rising Tides, Coastal Concerns: Seventeenth-Century Dutch Images of the Shoreline,” and Andrés Reséndez (History, UC Davis) “Opening the Pacific.” In this session, papers explored the way coasts mark instability, from a beached whale signifying the insecure relationship early modern Netherlanders had with their own coast, to the shifting political and intellectual grounds that underscore thinking about coasts in both present and historical terms, to changes in navigation and its effects on colonial enterprises when the patterns of gyres became understood. As the ensuing discussion made clear, the early modern period is often seen as a pre-industrial era retroactively viewed as a harmonious utopia. But the papers in this session belied this, exploring anxiety about events, crises, and the intertwined process of grappling with and looking away from environmental instability.

Dividing the two sessions were two workshops, one, on poetry, and guided by Liam Lewis (French, Liverpool) and Vin Nardizzi (English, UBC), on the theme of Eisteddfod (‘Sitting’): Queering Oceanic Voyages; and the other organized by Todd Borlik (English, Huddersfield) and Tiffany Jo Werth (English, UC Davis) on the theme of Coastal Ecologies and Underwater Worlds.

On the conference’s second day, the morning session’s presentations were by Mike Ziser (English, UC Davis) “Dead Seas: Reclamation and Exhumation in the Fenlands,” Sarah Mallory (Art History, Harvard) “Tender Lands: Depictions of Peat Digging in Seventeenth-Century Dutch Landscape,” and Hillary Eklund (English, Loyola University) “Rereading the Greedy Gulf.” In this session, presenters examined questions of environmental exploitation and extraction, from the reclamation of the Fens on the coast of England, to the effects of peat extraction and the drying of Dutch wetlands on visual conceptions of land and landscape, to literary conceptions of the Gulf as a greedy, swallowing entity.

The group watches a presentation about the history of the Marine Lab.

This was followed by a moderated discussion on Environmental Humanities and Contemporary Marine Science with discussants Rick Grosberg (Bodega Bay Marine Lab, UC Davis), John Largier (Director, Bodega Bay Marine Lab, UC Davis), M.A. Miller (UC Davis, Bilinski Fellow 2020), and Andrés Resendéz (History, UC Davis). Although the moderator, Steve Mentz (English, St. John’s University), was unable to attend in person due to flight complications, his questions prompted a lively conversation. The opening question, “How does the sea/shoreline shape your work,” prompted a rich reminiscence of encounters with and aversions to the oceanic. The next question explored “Disciplinary differences,” prompting presenters to consider how they understand the way that respective disciplines shaped how they did research and how they approached the sea. The discussion turned next to what might be learned from inter-disciplinary dialogue. The third question asked more directly about “studying the ocean,” and how the sea / shoreline featured in research, teaching, and writing. Finally, the roundtable concluded on a personal note, asking the discussants to reflect on what non-research related interactions with the sea were most meaningful.

The conference’s final session included presenters Elisa Antonietta Daniele (Art History, Marie Skłodowska-Curie Postdoctoral Fellow, UCLA) “Baroque Shores. Seawater’s Mimesis in Early 17th-Century Turin and the Transalpine Savoy Duchy,” Kirsten Schuhmacher (English, UC Davis) “Of things yet to come: Prolepsis in Nova Albion,” and Bronwen Wilson (Art History, UCLA) “Marco Boschini’s Island Navigations: Il Regno tutto di Candia (1651).” All three presentations explored instances  in which borders and limits have been imposed on land and ocean in an effort to contain their meaning while failing to solidify such constraints, from ephemeral enclosures meant to stand for the sea in theatrical performances, to Sir Francis Drake’s rhetorical reframing of North America as Nova Albion (a mirror image of England, connected by the oceans), to a Mediterranean island that is spatially inverted and imagined as a horizon projected through the sea rather than merely seen as a landmass in the water.

The conference ended with a discussion led by Vin Nardizzi and Lyle Massey.

Vin Nardizzi and Lyle Massey give closing remarks

In summation, the two days of rich scholarship and sustained engagement showed the inherent instability of so many narratives used to define oceans, seas and coasts. The coast in particular, which seems like a stable, material marker between land and sea, is more permeable than immediately apparent, dissolving into wetlands that are neither fully land nor sea, a constantly shifting and changing demarcation between elements, and a highly charged locus of exchange and transference.

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