Elijah Two Bears, University of California, Davis
On Friday, October 15th, 2022, the Oecologies research cluster gathered virtually to discuss the in-between of ocean and sky. Led by Dr. Tiffany Jo Werth, this conversation began the final part of the multi-year research project, “Earth/Sea/Sky.” Our discussion addressed three works, Eva Horn’s article, “Air as Medium,” from the journal Grey Room (2018), Valerie Allen’s chapter, “Airy Something,” from the edited collection, Elemental Ecocriticism (2015), and Carla Mazzio’s article, “The History of Air: Hamlet and the Trouble with Instruments,” from South Central Review (2009).
Dr. Werth opened the meeting by returning to previous reading groups’ discussions of what it means to think with the watery medium, focusing on the concepts of depth, saturation, and decompression. This helped us think about what is different about the sky. In particular, we attended to the in-between quality of air as both separate from and mixed with terrestrial and aquatic environments, like the oxygen in water or gas expelled from the earth. We considered the pressing urgency of visible air, from conspicuous pollution in the San Joaquin Valley to wildfires across North America. We linked the urgency of opaque skies in 2022 to the 1960s in Southern California and even to the early modern period through Mazzio’s exploration of the anxiety around London’s air. Our initial discussion also involved questions around discipline: are there disciplinary differences in thinking about air? How do disciplines attempt the airy challenge of thinking without form? We reflected on art history’s engagement with air, especially Allen’s reading of Caravaggio’s painting, The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, and the “empty space” created for Thomas to stick his finger in Christ’s wound (77).
Next, we shifted to thinking about nonhumans who inhabit the air. Previous Oecologies reading groups on the sea often directly addressed creatures like dolphins, fish, and whales, but we noted an absence of airy creatures in our readings, as well as more general conversations about sky as an environment and element. Dr. Werth asked the group to share our favorite early modern characters or entities that pass through, inhabit, or question the air. These included Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Ariel in The Tempest, and Satan as an in-between traveler in Paradise Lost. We also considered early modern preoccupations with rainbows, insects, shadows, and birds. The “sweet breath” of air was contrasted with dirty, thick air, an element which might carry plague.
Turning more explicitly to the three readings, we spent the later part of the session discussing two concepts that each author investigated: the affect and shape of air. In reflecting on the emotional realm of the sky, we noted Mazzio’s use of melancholia and Allen’s association of air with doubt. We also thought of common descriptors like “atmosphere,” which rely on airy language to communicate an audience’s affective reaction to art. We worked through Allen’s geometry of air, especially the challenge of thinking about air using triangles, a form that seems less readily organic than rounder shapes. Participants brought in examples of early modern texts that reflect a connection between air and geometry, like Cavendish’s Atomic Poems. We then turned our attention to air and the body, particularly the shape of air as it moves through lungs and pores and breath in the theater and opera. Our discussion ended as we reflected on how air calls us to allow fresh forms of perception to influence our connective imaginations, building on Mazzio’s theorization of air as a source of productive indirection.
While our discussion had many twists and turns, a consistent through-line was the recursive nature of the anxiety and urgency around opaque skies. When the air becomes visible through pollution, smoke, and disease, early moderns and we living now are forced to reckon with our precarious existence, one reliant on an invisible matter. Air, as in between earth, sea, and sky, calls us to collective witnessing of the harm we have done to our planet across time.