Notes from an Oecologies Event: “Ecogrief and the Premodern Environment”

Peter Remien, Lewis-Clark State College

Ecological grief is mourning that accompanies the ‘realization of environmental loss. Experienced as sorrow, guilt, helplessness, anger, desperation, and anxiety, ecogrief is associated with the vast environmental crises of the twenty-first century, such as climate change, ocean acidification, and species loss. And yet the most salient poetic expression of ecogrief may be John Milton’s seventeenth-century epic Paradise Lost, with its sustained meditation on the emotional consequences of loss of place. In Book 11 of the poem, Milton’s Eve, learning of her eviction from Eden, grieves the imminent loss:

Oh unexpected stroke, worse than death!
Must I thus leave thee Paradise? Thus leave
Thee native soil, these happy walks and shades,
Fit haunt of gods? Where I had hope to spend,	
Quiet though sad, the respite of that day	        
That must be mortal to us both. O flowers,	
That never will in other climate grow,	
My early visitation, and my last	
At e’en, which I bred up with tender hand	
From the first op’ning bud, and gave ye names,	        
Who now shall rear ye to the sun, or rank	
Your tribes, and water from the ambrosial fount?	
Thee lastly, nuptial bower, by me adorned	
With what to sight or smell was sweet; from thee	
How shall I part, and whither wander down	        
Into a lower world, to this obscure	
And wild, how shall we breathe in other air	
Less pure, accustomed to immortal fruits? (11.268-285)

Having already experienced the degradation of her beloved environment—a changed climate given to extremes of hot and cold, worsening storms, and a loss of amity between species—Eve finally has to face the prospect of life without her homeland and the creatures that it sustains. Written in the middle decades of the seventeenth century, while England was in the throes of civil war and political revolution, these lines nevertheless seem to speak directly to our own historical moment. Like Milton’s Eve, we in the twenty-first century find ourselves in the midst of a still unfolding environmental catastrophe, grieving not only what has already been lost, but what will be lost in the coming decades and centuries if dramatic action isn’t taken. Our ecogrief, like Eve’s, is both reactive and anticipatory, poised between the past and the looming future.

In this way, Milton’s poem, enshrined in medieval and early modern cosmologies, nevertheless supplies a narrative and emotional framework through which to envision our own ecogrief in the twenty-first century. It is this entanglement between premodern and modern literary, historical, and textual cultures that animated the recent Oecologies event “Ecogrief and the Premodern Environment,” hosted virtually on December 15, 2022. The event was facilitated by Oecologies co-director Kenna Olsen, Professor of Medieval English Literatures and Languages at Mount Royal University, and featured two speakers: Chris Barrett, Associate Professor of English and Dean’s Fellow in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Louisiana State University, and Heide Estes, Professor of English at Monmouth University. The two presentations and ensuing conversation explored the confluence of ecogrief, pedagogy, and premodern literature.

The first of the two talks, Chris Barrett’s “(Irrelevant Ecologies),” contemplated the relationship between the parenthetical and care for the more-than-human world. Foregrounding parenthesis as a punctuation mark for expressing things that “mean but don’t matter,” Barrett urges us to reconsider what is included and excluded when we study and teach early modern literary ecologies. Beginning with a moving personal anecdote about parenthetical notes in sympathy cards she received following the death of her father, Barrett established the relationship between parentheses, grief, and emotional expression—a theme that continued through the talk. Turning to pedagogy, Barrett then reflected on how her students used paratheses in an informal writing assignment on Aemilia Lanyer’s “The Description of Cooke-ham” to express their emotional reactions to the poem, which they, trained in critical inquiry, understood as marginal and ultimately irrelevant to the serious business of literary interpretation. Barrett then turned to how parentheses were theorized and used in early modern literature, with engaging close readings of Edmund Spenser’s use of parenthesis in “Muiopotmos” (a poem often understood as marginal to Spenser’s oeuvre) to convey moments of mourning for nonhuman creatures. Evoking George Puttenham’s classification of parentheses as a subset of hyperbaton, “The Trespasser” of sentences, Barrett ultimately argued for a reframing of the parenthetical as invited guest rather than unwanted trespasser as we seek fuller, more inclusive modes of representation.

The second talk, Heide Estes’ “Ecogrief and Old English Poetry: Pedagogical Considerations,” began with the paradox of how to inspire environmental consciousness and action in our students without imposing ideas and ethical frameworks upon them. To address this dilemma, Estes drew upon her years of experience teaching classes in medieval literature, ecocriticism, and environmental communication at Monmouth University, offering both practical ecology-based assignments and incisive readings of Old English texts. As a specific inroad to ecogrief, Estes recounted the devastation wrought on her coastal New Jersey community in 2012 by Hurricane Sandy—a storm almost certainly made worse by climate change. Parsing the distinction between climate and weather, Estes then historicized these concepts through examples from Old English texts such as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and the Exeter Book’s Storm Riddles to demonstrate how people in the early Middle Ages had a concept of “unseasonable weather” (untidgewidera) similar to our own. In doing so, Estes cautioned against the common environmentalist tendency to place the Industrial Revolution as the origin of our current ecological crises, arguing instead that many of our modern ideas about the natural world are prefigured in medieval attitudes and practices. Estes next turned to the anonymous Old English poem, “The Seafarer,” as a paradigmatic poetic expression of ecogrief, with its juxtaposition of memories of pleasures past with the destructive, icy winter sea. In the final part of her presentation, Estes evoked positive examples of environmental action such as the 1972 ban on DDT (largely inspired by the work of Rachel Carson) and the 1987 Montreal Protocol, reminding us that ecogrief should be productive, inspiring positive environmental and social actions rather than despair.

The event, which gathered over forty participants, left approximately twenty minutes for questions, and culminated in a conversation about the relationship between premodern literature, ecogrief, and environmental activism. Tiffany Jo Werth asked the first question about theological cosmologies and the problem of transcendence in premodern thought, leading to sage responses from both Barrett and Estes about fragility and the value of inhabiting a precarious world. The second question, raised by Kenna Olsen, picked up on Barrett’s focus on hospitality and focused on how to extend hospitality to nonhuman creatures. This question, in turn, led to a productive conversation about hospitality in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and The Odyssey. The final question, posed by Abby Ang, involved the efficacy of ecogrief: “In medieval literature, what does ecogrief propel people towards? And at what point do we move from the individual to the collective?” This question, addressed to both speakers, inspired a productive closing dialogue about how we move from ecogrief to positive environmental change, with reference to John Evelyn’s projects in urban forestry to Chaucer’s grief for victims of the bubonic plague.

While the two talks were distinct in focus and approach, the first exploring early modern literature and parenthetical grief, and the second climate in Old English literature, there were a number of intriguing thematic parallels. The first point of connection was the importance of pedagogical approaches that are attentive to ecogrief and emotional responses to the natural world. A second, less expected, connection was how both talks, composed in different coastal regions in the US, made reference to damage done by climate-change fueled hurricanes. This focus on the immediate destruction wrought by hurricanes, rather than the “slow violence” often associated with environmental degradation, to reference Rob Nixon’s influential concept, reminds us that ecogrief is often directed at the here and now, that environmental catastrophe   already upon us. The provocation of “Ecogrief and the Premodern Environment” is to make our ecogrief productive, generative of alternative ethics and epistemologies rather than disengagement and despair, as we seek more sustainable ways of living in our beautiful and precarious world.


John Milton, Paradise Lost. Edited by Alastair Fowler. Routledge, 2006.

Rob Nixon, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Harvard University Press, 2011.

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