Mourning Becomes California, or New Reflections on Slow Shakespeare

Sharon O’Dair, University of Alabama

Some years ago, I published an essay in a forum on Shakespeare and Ecology, arguing that historical work in the early modern period could assist the science of ecology, a science that studies populations of organisms.1  The reason our historical work might assist the ecologists is that one significant problem for them is “the shifting baseline syndrome,” a problem that was forcefully noted in a 1996 academic journal by the prominent fisheries scientist at the University of British Columbia, Daniel Pauly, and subsequently by him in fora aimed at laypeople (e.g., a 2012 Ted Talk and a 2010 talk to the Slyvia Earle Alliance).  In 1996, Pauly wrote that

each generation of fisheries scientists accepts as a baseline the stock size and species composition that occurred at the beginning of their careers, and uses this to evaluate changes. When the next generation starts its career, the stocks have further declined but it is the stocks at that time that serve as a new baseline. The result obviously is a gradual shift of the baseline, a gradual accommodation of the creeping disappearance of resource species, and inappropriate reference points for evaluating economic losses resulting from overfishing, or for identifying targets for rehabilitation measures.2

(We have our own problem with a shifting baseline, the weirdly a-historical nature of our historicist criticism, for example.  About fifteen years ago, an ambitious graduate student at a prominent university explained to me—I’m paraphrasing—“we were told not to bother reading criticism published before 1980.”3  When I was a new assistant professor, a senior colleague told me that if my work wasn’t cited within five years, it never would be. That, thankfully, turned out to be incorrect.)

For a number of reasons easily hypothesized by all, few commentators, whether scholars or journalists, address the scientific question of populations, specifically human populations, another shifting baseline we perhaps ought to heed.  It’s refreshing, therefore, to read, as I did recently in Verlyn Klinkenborg’s “What Were Dinosaurs For?,” that “[w]e’re now in the midst of another mass extinction, driven by the global proliferation of humans (7.7 billion and counting) and our frenzied economic activity.”4 An asteroid killed off the dinosaurs and the vibrant ecosystems in which they lived.  We are doing it to ourselves and the vibrant ecosystems that have sustained us. It my desire in this post to flesh out Klinkenborg’s sentence by reflecting on my return to the state of my birth, California, after living elsewhere for almost three decades.  Mourning becomes California: I first wrote the following in the fall of 2019, as fires raged in northern California. Today, COVID-19 rages across my state and the world, another ecological disaster, the result of (too many) people exploiting animals through habitat removal and urbanization, as well as through the hunting and consumption of exotic animals.  

In the autumn of 1987, when the population of California was about 28 million, I left Berkeley, CA for the deep south of the United States, for Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where I took up an assistant professorship in the Department of English at the university there.  Born and bred in California, loving my state, the air, the light, oceans, mountains, really the breath and breadth of the place—all made leaving difficult.  But I wanted the job, a research job, even if I had to move 2000 miles to a part of the country that humanist academics disdained and still do, though with somewhat less vehemence.  Even if I had to move to the hot, humid sub-tropics, whose fecundity shocked.  Whose trees strangled. Whose topography lulled.  Whose tornadoes and hurricanes killed.  Whose mosquitoes might, carrying viruses in their bites, moving northward—West Nile, Zika, Dengue, Chikungunya.

Leaving was difficult, and I was certain I would never return to live in the beautiful, alluring state of my birth, childhood, and young adulthood.  The cost-of-living would always be out of reach, I thought, the houses in beckoning metro areas too, too expensive for a humanist to keep up, working as I was in a poor state’s flagship institution.

Twenty-nine years later, in late summer 2016, when the population of the state was 39 million, I returned to Berkeley, looking for a home to buy. I’d run the numbers over and over; I’d consulted with the wealth managers; I could do it!  And you know what they say about returning to one’s roots, to home, to the embrace of place, so familiar and kind, known. The sun emerging from the coastal fog, energizing my body as it did long ago. The water, the bridges, Mount Tamalpais in the distance. This time, with money to spend on dinners in the new gleaming restaurants of San Francisco or in the foodie temple in Berkeley, Chez Panisse.

But the air, the light, the breath of the place wasn’t quite the same.  Berkeley was dry to the eye and the touch: lawns brown; trees gasping, dull, dying. Dirt and trash lined the streets, urine and feces sometimes, too. Unhoused people staggered about, pushing grocery carts or baby strollers (without babies). Or they hunched on their haunches at intersections, begging, dying.  RVs lined streets; tents formed little cities; fires broke out and fights, too. The income inequality (worse than Alabama’s); the failing public schools (when I was a child, among the best in the country, but now not much better than Alabama’s); and the decaying infrastructure (Alabama’s might be better; Berkeley’s streets remind me of New Orleans’s). The light can’t redeem these sights. 

In late autumn 2019, with the population up another million, a fire burned uncontrollably 80 miles north of my home, smoke seeping visibly toward Mount Tamalpais and the Golden Gate, obscuring, gasping.  Last year a fire engulfed a small mountain town called Paradise; the year before that, an entire neighborhood or two in the city of Santa Rosa. And before that…others. This time, upwards of two million people lost electricity, hundreds of thousands for the second time in a month, as the electric utility pursued what it calls a Public Safety Power Shutoff.  And the utility informs us that this will be the norm for at least a decade to come.

It’s silly to think a particular year can be a turning point, but I am not the only one to arrive in the East Bay in 2016, shocked at what the place has become. In the December 2019 issue of Harper’s, Wes Enzinna describes his return to Oakland in 2016 after an absence of eight years, not quite as long as my absence but long enough.  “Gimme Shelter: The cost of living in the Bay Area” describes his struggle to find housing with a disposable income of about $1500 per month: 

After nearly a month of looking for a place to live, I got a text from [my friend] Jenny: “Would you consider a shack?”. . . . It was smaller than a closet . . . and illegal to inhabit, but if I was willing to seal it against the elements and finish construction, I could rent it for $240 per month. I said yes without visiting.5

Enzinna’s shack and the homeless camps around it are about 3 miles from my condo in Berkeley.  The cover of that issue of Harper’s features “illuminated tents erected by artist-activist Suzi Garner and members of the #WhereDoWeGoBerk movement at a homeless encampment alongside Interstate 80 near Berkeley, California.”6 “Where Do We Go?” the tents ask as you exit the interstate to go up the hill to the University of California, three miles away.  And as you exit to go to my residence, less than one mile away.  My wife and I ask the same question, “Where Do We Go?”  

In nine years, the population of California is expected to nudge 44 million.  That’s one year before 2030, the year of the climate’s point of no return according to some.  In 2050, the population is expected to be 60 million.  And all this after the population of California almost tripled in the latter half of the twentieth century. When I was born, in 1955, the state’s population was around 10 million.

What happened?  One may point fingers at Republicans or Democrats or capitalists or migrant workers or Proposition 13, but the numbers, the numbers of people tell the story.  (And if you don’t believe me, ask Donna Haraway.7) Servicing the needs and desires of Californians and Americans are three of the busiest container ship ports in the country, in Los Angeles, in Long Beach, and in Oakland.  In southern California, the two ports spew huge amounts of nitrous oxide into the region and efforts at control struggle to keep up, because, as the Los Angeles Times reported, “At stake . . . are billions of dollars in potential costs at the nation’s busiest seaport, which handles roughly 40% of U.S. imports and remains overwhelmingly powered by diesel-spewing trucks, ships, locomotives and cargo-handling equipment. The volume of shipments moving through the two ports has more than tripled since the mid-1990s, supporting hundreds of thousands of jobs.”8 

Cars, computers, phones, diapers, rubber ducks, plastic straws, yurts for glamping, umbrellas for pina coladas, vinyl for trendy albums, the cast-off task chairs the homeless gobble from the streets. Everything, almost. But those needs and desires aren’t just ours; we consume so that perhaps hundreds of millions of Chinese may do so, too, may desire and need and spend just as we do.  Or desire and need and spend somewhat differently, for rhino horn, civet cat, or bats, because, as Chinese food researcher Zhenzhong Si observed in an interview on National Public Radio in late January:

Eating wild animal is considered a symbol of wealth because they are more rare and expensive. And wild animals is also considered more natural and, thus, nutritious, compared to farmed meat. It’s a belief in traditional Chinese medicine that it can boost the immune system, you know?  

Si acknowledges that in China, “It’s really difficult to change the mindset of, you know, eating wild animals is better than eating farmed animals,”9 but changing mindsets about wet markets may be less of a challenge than changing ecocritics’ mindsets about the elephant in the room, the human population, the third rail of environmental action, which ecology as a science demands to be studied, its costs and benefits. Instead the city of Berkeley bans plastic straws and Alice Waters takes meat off the prix fixe menu at Chez Panisse one day a week.  Baby steps, one might say, they are so important!  But 250 actual babies are born every minute of every day.  And they will grow up to consume and consume and consume some more. Many of us dream that populations can continue to grow without economic growth driven by fossil fuels.  The first few months of 2020 should cast doubt on that proposition: air pollution and carbon emissions are dropping precipitously world-wide—in China, in India, in Europe, in the United States, as numerous news sites report. The skies around Berkeley are beautiful, clearer than in decades, perhaps.  But in Berkeley, as around the world, few people are working: unemployment is rising as precipitously as pollution and emissions are dropping.  As the shutdown continues more and more small businesses—restaurants, bars, small retail shops—will fail; more and people will become homeless, more and more children will fall behind in their studies; more and more people will die from ancillary medical causes, the heart valve or brain tumor that isn’t fixed.  My point is not that the shutdown is unnecessary; it is.  My point is that the COVID-19 shows that the sorts of economic change a lot of us wish for—degrowth or no growth—comes with a price.  And as the Gilets Jaunes demonstrated last year in France, the mass of people struggle to pay it. 

We know that our highly mobile and globalized economic system will produce more pandemics;  there’s “a huge reservoir of virus strains in other mammals (1,200 bat species alone, one of which may have given us SARS-CoV-2).”10 Si observes that changing the mindsets of his fellow citizens is difficult.  But we do have opportunity now to change the ways we live. In fact, we (dare I call us the winners in our globalized world?) can lead. The global economy has come to a screeching halt; travel has, too. It is difficult for most of my readers to imagine what material life was like in the early 1970s—my baseline, shall we say, even more than the 1980s.  Life without plastic—cf. The Graduate—or consumer credit or interstates (to speak of) or the Shakespeare Association of America or neoliberal capitalism or MDs who bartered, sometimes, with craftspeople so that they could pay their bills.  Difficult to imagine, in California today, what life was like with half the population, a time when Population Connection (what does that mean?) was Zero Population Growth (we know what that means).  But my baseline, that of 40 or 50 years ago, may have new relevance: life was slower, more local, and education was too.  Higher education was regional, barely national, and certainly not international.  Professors weren’t professionalized, making professional salaries; “publish or perish” wasn’t a phrase; and CVs weren’t twenty pages long.  Two campuses of the University of California—Irvine, and Santa Cruz—opened only in 1965. After the pandemic, it is already clear, globalization will loosen, though not break.  Will performing arts or sport return in their current globalized forms?  Will businesses, including universities, return to long-distance travel for meetings or for research? Will ecologically-minded people question travel in any form? Think how quiet the world is now, and how much time we have for reflection. With reflection and changes in our lifestyles, perhaps a new baseline will emerge for the young some years down the road, one very much different from the one they inhabited just a few months ago. Perhaps a new baseline will emerge, in which people, including scholars, are rooted in the local and engage more slowly and cautiously and generously—less competitively, consuming less—with their environment, including animals and their fellow humans.  The new baseline won’t be a significantly lower global population, but it might include an understanding that nature has given us yet another warning to slow down, before a worse, more deadly virus emerges, or the icecaps melt. Slow Shakespeare.11


Notes

[1] O’Dair, Sharon. “‘To fright the animals and to kill them up’: Shakespeare and Ecology.” Forum: Shakespeare and Ecology.  Shakespeare Studies 39.  Ed. Susan Zimmerman and Garrett Sullivan. Madison: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2011, 74-83.  

[2] Pauley, Daniel. “Anecdotes and the shifting baseline syndrome of fisheries.” Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 10 (1995): 430. 

[3] For a call for to historicize post-1980s criticism, see Albanese, Denise. “Identification, Alienation and ‘Hating the Renaissance’.”  Ed. Sharon O’Dair and Timothy Francisco.  Shakespeare and the 99% Literary Studies, the Profession, and the Production of Inequity.  New York: Palgrave, 2019, 19-36.

[4] Klinkenborg, Verlyn.  What Were Dinosaurs For?” The New York Review of Books (December 19, 2019): https://www.nybooks.com/articles/2019/12/19/what-were-dinosaurs-for/

[5] Enzinna, Wes. “Gimme Shelter: The cost of living in the Bay Area.” Harper’s Magazine (December 2019): 27.

[6] Harper’s Magazine (December 2019): 1.

[7] See Haraway, Donna J. Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene.  Durham: Duke University Press, 2016, 99-103.  See, too, her follow-up, “Making Kin in the Chthulucene: Reproducing Multispecies Justice.” Making Kin Not Population. Ed. Adele E. Clarke and Donna Haraway.  Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press, 2018, 67-99.

[8] Barboza, Tony.  “Port ships are becoming L.A.’s biggest polluters. Will California force a cleanup?” Los Angeles Times (January 3, 2020): https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2020-01-03/port-ships-are-becoming-la-worst-polluters-regulators-plug-in

[9] “Why ‘Wet Markets’ Persisted In China Despite Disease And Hygiene Concerns.” National Public Radio (January 22, 2020): https://www.npr.org/2020/01/22/798644707/why-wet-markets-persisted-in-china-despite-disease-and-hygiene-concerns

[10] Boudry, Maarten.  “A strange paradox: the better we manage to contain the coronavirus pandemic, the less we will learn from it.” The Conversation (April 2, 2020): https://theconversation.com/a-strange-paradox-the-better-we-manage-to-contain-the-coronavirus-pandemic-the-less-we-will-learn-from-it-135268

See also the just-released study by UC Davis’ One Health Institute.  Johnson, Christine K., et.al. “Global shifts in mammalian population trends reveal key predictors of virus spillover risk.” Proceedings of the Royal Society B (8 April 2020): https://doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2019.2736  For a news release about the study, see Kerlin, Kat, “The Link Between Virus Spillover, Wildlife Extinction and the Environment” (April 7, 2020): https://www.ucdavis.edu/coronavirus/news/link-between-virus-spillover-wildlife-extinction-and-environment

[11] I was an early promoter of slowing down the profession.  See these three essays, for example, from 2008: “Slow Shakespeare; An Eco-Critique of ‘Method’ in Early Modern Literary Studies.” Early Modern Ecostudies: From the Florentine Codex to Shakespeare. Ed. Ivo Kamps, Karen Raber, and Thomas Hallock. Palgrave, 2008. 1-30; “The State of the Green: A Review Essay on Shakespearean Ecocriticism.” Shakespeare 4.4 (December 2008): 474-492; and “Virtually There:  Shakespeare and Tourism in the 21st Century.”  Upstart Crow 27 (2008): 5-23.  I have continued to urge this, as I do in this piece.

“Earth”: Oxford, September 19th and 20th

“Earth,” the first part of multi-year collaboration “Earth, Sea, Sky,” took place at The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities in September. The project’s principal investigators are Dr. Tom White (University of Oxford), Dr. Tiffany Jo Werth (University of California, Davis), Dr. Vin Nardizzi (University of British Columbia), and Dr. Todd Borlik (University of Huddersfield).

For “Earth,” we invited our participants to dwell on one or more of the following areas:

• Excavating earth (mines, resources, fossil fuels and other energy sources, appropriation)

• Picturing earth (maps, globes, diagrams)

• Perceiving / Delimiting earth (borders, limits, perspectives)

• Covering earth (urban/rural, vegetation and crops, weather)

• Saving / Leaving earth (preservation, seed banks, travel, transcendence, catastrophe)

We had thought long and hard about the format of the event. The schedule—available in full here—reflected our aim to provide as much time and space as possible for discussion and informal networking. Paper sessions consisted of two papers of roughly 30 minutes, followed by a five minute interval for those in the audience to speak to the people around them about something in the papers that sparked a question or provoked a response. This was followed by a traditional Q&A. The meeting also featured two workshop sessions: a careers roundtable on day one and then three concurrent work-in-progress sessions on day two.

Each of the four paper sessions skilfully traversed period and disciplinary boundaries. These sessions took us from eleventh-century sermons of Wulfstan, to the remarkable seventeenth-century depictions of stone by Jacopo Ligozzi, to satirical French comics from the early 1970s. Among many other locations, they also took us from the cramped stage of the Rose theatre in early modern London, to the ruined masterpiece of hydrological engineering that was the Aztec city of Tenochtitlán, to Turkish tulip markets, and on to Silicon Valley via seventeenth-century visions of the marbled and adamantine New Jerusalem. This is only a small window on a wide array of approaches and primary materials; our presenters’ paper titles as well as a working bibliography of sources central to their work are gathered at the end of this post.

Each session also sought to examine how, in the words of our original call for papers, the ‘premodern archive resonates with contemporary concerns around environmental degradation and global warming.’ Further, most of the papers considered how where we reside and write informs and inflects our work in the environmental humanities. Lyle Massey, for example, began her discussion of premodern depictions of St Jerome, including Giovanni Bellini’s St Jerome in the Desert (c. 1450), with an account of desertification in California in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Similarly, Hillary Eklund closed her account of water management and mismanagement in colonial Mexico by turning briefly to her current home city of New Orleans, itself precariously located amid an increasingly “unfast” landscape. 

The two workshop sessions provided the opportunity for all of our participants to discuss their work and share some of their experiences. On day one was the careers roundtable, led by Tiffany Jo Werth, Vin Nardizzi and Todd Borlik, with valuable additional contributions by Kellie Robertson and Mike Bintley. We discussed a number of pre-circulated readings on the rise of the “environmental humanities” as a field and career trajectory. These materials included an essay by Christopher Schaberg written specially for the occasion, and which can be read here. We also discussed practical issues regarding job applications, article writing, and book proposals. Threaded through the session were important reflections from scholars at varying stages of their academic career on the challenges and rewards of working across disciplinary and period boundaries. Also central to the conversation was a frank discussion of the importance of optimism and the inevitably of pessimism in our thinking both about the planetary future, and the future of the humanities and our place in it.  

An informal reception concluded the first day and included a reading and performance by Leonie Mhari of To Where it May Concern. The piece—made with Elinor Scarth, who regrettably could not join us—literally unpacks visual and material fragments of a Scottish landscape, collected in Armadale, Skye and Armadale, West Lothian, from a weathered suitcase. The suitcase was used to transport these fragments to Armidale, New South Wales on 13 February 2019, where new fragments were added. In its repeated packing and unpacking in different locations, To Where it May Concern examines how colonization, capitalism and global warming impinge on the remembering and documenting of landscapes. 

The workshop sessions on the second day of the symposium were led by the presenters from our paper sessions: 

• Liam Lewis & Vin Nardizzi: “Earth’s Coverings: Animals and Plants, On and Off the Page” 

• Mo Pareles & Todd Borlik: “Migration, Survival, Ecologies”

• Lyle Massey & Tiffany Jo Werth: “Land/Landscape”

Detailed descriptions of each of the sessions are available here. These sessions were also intended to provide an opportunity for practice-based researchers to discuss their work. In “Land/Landscape,” Lydia Halcrow discussed some of her recent artworks based around the shifting landscape of the Taw Estuary in Devon. In the careers workshop, Olusegun Titus had described some of his ethnomusicological research in the Niger Delta, where the fossil fuel industry continues to decimate the environment and the lives of those who live and work in its wake. Here, he returned to some of the historical analogues for that research, as well as treating those present to a short performance of the traditional Nigerian song “Lori Oke ati Petele” (The Mountain and the Valley).  

The second day of our gathering coincided with the worldwide Schools Strike for Climate. In the extended lunch break after the workshop sessions, many of us headed to nearby Broad Street, where the Oxford rally was taking place. The handmade signs on display and the chants reverberating among the crowd were a salutary reminder (if one was needed) of the urgency of the environmental crisis; yet the rally was also a reminder that the evident energy for new, better stories about the past and future might be one of the most important renewable resources we have.

In the closing roundtable, Kellie Robertson, Marjorie Rubright and Catherine Walsh offered short reflections on the previous days’ discussions and the place of the environmental humanities in the future of the academy more broadly. The history of colonialism and its deleterious environmental impacts loomed large in many papers and were again an important topic of discussion here; further, we returned, via reference to the work of Kyle Whyte, to Hillary Eklund’s earlier comments on how Indigenous knowledge often presents more “ample” understandings of specific environments. As in the careers workshop the previous day, the possibility of optimism for our planetary and academic futures was also a recurring, or perhaps rather overarching, topic of discussion.    

On Saturday morning, those of us still in town visited Lande: The Calais ‘Jungle’ and Beyond, a special exhibition at the Pitt Rivers Museum. The exhibition draws on a wide range of materials (photos, children’s artworks, objects) to trace the history of the “Lande” camp in Calais. There, on a contaminated landfill site, around 10,000 displaced people eventually gathered, most hoping to make their way across the Channel to the United Kingdom. The camp was demolished in 2016, becoming another chapter in a long cycle of settlement and demolition in the Pas-de-Calais over the last twenty years. By examining what it calls the “environmental hostility” of modern borders and bordering practices, Lande demonstrates that the “slow violence” described by Rob Nixon not only displaces people from their homes but is also inflicted on them where they seek refuge. 

Exhibition view of Lande: The Calais ‘Jungle’ and Beyond, Pitt Rivers Museum. Photo Credit: Tom White.

For the next part of the project, we turn our gaze out to Sea in 2020—further details to follow soon. In the meantime, I would like to take this opportunity to acknowledge the generous support of the TORCH International Partnerships Scheme, the John Fell Fund, and St Edmund Hall. Special thanks to Lidia Domingues, Anbara Khalidi and Sue McCarthy for their help in bringing us all together for “Earth”, and to Christopher Schaberg for taking the time to compose a new essay for the event. 

– Dr. Tom White, University of Oxford

Paper Titles 

Perceiving Earth 

1. Lyle Massey –“Ascetic Ecologies: Deserts, Saints and Caves in the Renaissance”

2. Mo Pareles –“Nauseated Land: A Theory of Translation”

(Un)covering Earth 

1. Hillary Eklund – “Unwatering Earth: The Control of Nature in Colonial Mexico”

2. Vin Nardizzi – “Flora’s Atelier”

Excavating Earth 

1. Bronwen Wilson – “Lithic Images, Jacopo Ligozzi, and the Descrizione del Sacro Monte della Vernia (1612)” [paper read by Tom White]

2. Liam Lewis – “Doing Prophecy with Earth Elements”

Delimiting / Leaving Earth  

1. Todd Borlik –“ How many people can stand on the earth? Malthusian Reckoning in Christopher Marlowe”

2. Tiffany Jo Werth – “Leaving Earth for yond Marble Heaven.” 

Running Bibliography

Buell, Lawrence. “Anthropocene Panic: Contemporary Ecocriticism and the Issue of Human Numbers,” Frame 29.2 (2016): 1-15.

Douglas, M. Leviticus as Literature. (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2001).

Erickson, Peter, and Kim F. Hall. “‘A New Scholarly Song’: Rereading Early Modern Race,” Shakespeare Quarterly 67.1 (2016): 1-13.

Latour, Bruno. “Will Non-humans Be Saved? An Argument in Ecotheology,” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 15 (2009): 459-475.

Lewis, Simon and Mark Maslin. The Human Planet: How We Created the Anthropocene. (London: Pelican, 2018).

Masten, Jeffrey. Queer Philologies: Sex, Language, and Affect in Shakespeare’s Time (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016).

Povinelli, Elizabeth. Geontologies: A Requiem to Late Liberalism. Duke University Press, 2016. 

Singh, Julietta. Unthinking Mastery: Dehumanism and Decolonial Entanglements (Durham: Duke University Press, 2018).

Steel, Karl. “Woofing and Weeping With Animals in the Last Days,” postmedieval 1.1/2 (2010): 187-193.

Strawn, B. A. “On Vomiting: Leviticus, Jonah, Ea(a)rth.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 74 (2012): 445-64.

Wallace-Wells, David. The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming. (New York: Timothy Duggan Books, 2019). 

Whyte, Kyle. “Indigenous Climate Change Studies: Indigenizing Futures, Decolonizing the Anthropocene,” English Language Notes 55, no. 1–2 (Fall 2017): 153-62.

The Year In Review, 2018-2019

It’s a pleasure to reflect on the fifth year for the Oecologies network. Since our first annual review in 2014-2015, the network has extended its geographical remit down the Pacific North American Coast, grown and codified its mission and governance, and continued to add new members and activities to its roster. Following last summer’s restructuring of its governance, we’ve been able to foster new partnerships, collaborations, and showcase members’ contributions in exciting ways. Read on! 

Speaker Series: 

As in years past, Oe convened and co-sponsored public lectures as well as serving as the umbrella organization for numerous panels and talks at major premodern field conferences and symposia.  

Our speaker series this year featured four public lectures: two in Vancouver, British Columbia and two at UC Davis, California. 

In the fall, UC Davis kicked off our series and hosted Dr. Vin Nardizzi, who gave a talk titled “Tulips and Turbans in Renaissance Art and Natural History.” If you are keen to hear more about this provocative pairing, you might enjoy checking out the recap of the talk by Samantha Snively, a recent Ph.D. from UC Davis.

Dr. Nardizzi’s visit also included a field trip for graduate students and faculty to UC Davis’ special collections to see a copy of John Gerard’s 1636 The herball, or General historie of plantes.

Oe began 2019 by hosting Dr. Courtney Barajas at the University of British Columbia where she gave a lecture on “Oecotheology: Natural Wisdom in Old English Poetry.” Her talk explored what she terms a “surge of ‘green thinking’” in early medieval England and offered readings of Old English wisdom poems. 

The following month, in February, Dr. Jessica Rosenberg gave a talk at UC Davis entitled ‘Harvesting Books and Uprooting Poems: Circulation and Vulnerability in Elizabethan Botanical Cultures.” Her talk drew from the book she is completing during her year as a fellow at the Huntington Library (2018-19). As the title suggests, her work combines history of the book, history of reading, formalism, and natural history in innovative ways. 

For the final talk of the year, in April, Dr. Siân Echard (University of British Columbia) and Dr. Matthew Hussey (Simon Fraser University) jointly presented “Ecologies of the Medieval Book”  at Simon Fraser University. Dr. Hussey presented first, considering the materiality of several early-medieval manuscripts and textual objects through both their local and global ecologies. Dr. Echard followed with a discussion of the more immediate “environments” of several well-known 14th- and 15th-century manuscripts—the groves of doodles, splotches, and other marginalia that surround and inform their written texts.

In addition to hosting this Speaker Series, Oecologies members organized and participated in several regional conferences. One new feature that we’re proud to institute was the creation of conference pathways for Oecologies members to help them organize their conference schedules and not miss out on relevant eco-friendly sessions. You can view a sample of these pathways posted via our social media sites on Twitter and on Facebook.

Oecologies had a presence at the following conferences: 

  • the Modern Language Association Chicago, IL (January)
  • the Shakespeare Association of America Washington, DC (April)
  • the Renaissance Society of America Toronto, ON (April)
  • the International Congress on Medieval Studies Kalamazoo, MI (May)
  • the 2019 Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences Vancouver, BC (June)
  • the Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment Davis, CA (June) 

Partnerships and Collaborations 

In addition to these regional and international conferences, members of the executive council worked in partnership to give talks at libraries and symposia across North America. A few highlights include: 

We were also excited to break out of the academic mold with an artistic theatrical collaboration spearheaded by one of Oecologies co-founding members, Dr. Patricia Badir. To learn more about this exciting collaboration, see our inaugural blog post on the Galatea Project in Vancouver: 

Printed Publications 

Oecologies is especially proud to welcome into print the first publication emerging from the network. Growing from the conference jointly hosted at the University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University in 2015, Premodern Ecologies in the Modern Literary Imagination  features essays by members and collaborators (Robert Rouse, Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, Patricia Badir, Louise Noble, Sarah Crover, Frances E. Dolan, Louisa Mackenzie, Sharon O’Dair, David Coley, Sandra Young, Scott MacKenzie, David Matthews, and J. Allan Mitchell) with an afterword by the prominent ecocritic Ursula K. Heise.  You can read more about it at the University of Toronto homepage

Below is a preview of what critics are saying: 

Stay tuned for details of a MLA launch celebration in Seattle (2020)!

Looking Ahead: 

As a part of Oecologies commitment to fostering partnerships and collaborations beyond its geographical remit of the Pacific West Coast, we’re excited to announce a multi-year symposia collaboration, “Earth, Sea, Sky” with collaborators from the UK, the US, and Canada. 

The first symposia, “Earth” will kick off the series this September, and we’re excited to be supported in part by TORCH, the Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities. Look for a blog posting in October that will reflect on the conversations that we hope will stretch across three countries in as many years. 

We’re also thrilled to announce that Sharon O’Dair (Emerita) has accepted the nomination to be the next incoming Director, joining the Directorial team with  Vin Nardizzi and David Coley. While Tiffany Jo Werth is happy to stand back and watch new energy empeople Oecologies, she looks forward to remaining engaged through partnerships such as “Earth, Sea, Sky.” 

Special Thanks 

Perhaps the most visible testament to our evolving network is the revamped Oe website that underwent a major digital image update in the fall of 2018. We’re grateful to our fall Research Assistant, Sawyer Kemp, for all their design inspiration and digital know-how that made it possible. We’re also grateful to the newly christened cohort of graduate student liaisons—Alex Cosh (UBC), Karol Pasciano (UBC), and Breanne Weber (UC Davis)—who have helped with the maintenance of our social media sites and whose enthusiasm launched the new Oe blog monthly posts. 

We’d also like to extend a big thanks for the efforts of the membership subcommittee, Louisa MacKenzie and Sharon O’Dair, for their outreach which has resulted in a more diverse and growing membership. J. Allan Mitchell was instrumental in making Oecologies a force at ASLE and the three linked sessions there created a wonderful premodern mini-conference, about which you can read more in this recap written by graduate student participants.

Outgoing Director, Tiffany Jo Werth 

Oecologies at ASLE 2019

Oecologies is pleased to launch its new Calls for Papers section on our Scholarly Resources page.  This section includes a focused list of calls for papers that may be of interest to our membership. If you have inquiries about the CFPs listed there or are interested in promoting an Oe-relevant conference session, please email Oecologies.

Annette Hulbert, Kirsten Schuhmacher, & Breanne Weber

The 2019 Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment (ASLE) conference was hosted last week (June 26-30) on one of the home campuses of Oecologies: the University of California, Davis. As #11 in the list of the Princeton Review’s “Top 50 Green Colleges,” UC Davis was the perfect location to host the over 1200 ecologically-minded conference attendees, who were able to enjoy the outdoors and experience the best that Davis has to offer, including mild sunny weather, a variety of food trucks, a bat walk, and two hikes in Stebbins Canyon. The campus—with its public commitment to sustainability—is a prime location to consider the epistemological and ontological implications of environmental relations and their representations in literature and media. As participants wandered through the arboretum, across the river, and among beds of jasmine to attend each panel, plenary, and field trip, we found ourselves noting how particularly situated within the environment we are, and considering the role that the academy can and should play in reckoning with that.

The three Oecologies-sponsored panels took place on the final day of ASLE, which gave us several days to attend a variety of panels and gain a sense of the scholarly atmosphere. Premodern narratives about the natural world were never far from our minds, however, in part because many panels explored the environmental and epistemological boundaries posed in (or by) the past. The CFP for the Oecologies panel on “Premodern Horizons” indicated an interest in “whether and how premodern pasts open new ecological horizons for the future,” a concern that surfaced, even if briefly, in the Q&A after a panel on “Nineteenth-Century Posthumanisms” as panelists discussed decentering the human in nineteenth-century poetry and whether the radical shift in subjectivity this entails can be traced back to a premodern moment. 

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Oecologies I: Premodern Horizons (L to R: Kirsten Schuhmacher, Chelsea S. Henson, Annette Hulbert, Allan Mitchell, Tiffany Jo Werth, John Slater. Photo Credit: Breanne Weber)

Over the next several days of the conference, this tension between premodern past and present often materialized when the conversation turned to rhetoric: the rhetoric we are currently using to discuss environmental issues, where it has been inherited from, and whether it is successful in allowing us to have cross-disciplinary interactions. Certainly, this was a topic central to “Premodern Horizons,” as panelists reflected on atmospheric phenomena and the new forms of perception that emerge when human vision encounters its limit. During the panel’s Q&A, an audience member notably asked the group to consider which particular genres and rhetorical modes are produced in response to climate crisis. A week after the conference has concluded, we are still thinking about how premodern concerns permeated many of the ASLE discussions, particularly those that grappled with how to navigate environmental and epistemological boundaries.

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Oecologies II: Terraqueous Transformations: Land, Water, and Power in Early/Modern Contexts (L to R: Liza McIntosh, Debapriya Sarkar, Tom White. Photo Credit: Tiffany Jo Werth)

So where does this leave us as premodern scholars working within the environmental humanities? Looking out at the attendees of the Oecologies panels, most, if not all, were scholars of premodern literature. Though unsurprising, it is disheartening to know that our panels were too “far afield” to pull in the post-industrial crowd. Simply put, how are we, as rule-breaking medievalists and early modernists, supposed to share pre-industrial environmental thought with scholars working in later historical periods?

The inception of ecocriticism, the very foundation of ASLE, was always meant to shine a light on the environment and harmful environmental thought. The founders of ASLE believed that the humanities were the key to making real environmental change because it could look back and find the stories that bind everything together. So, one of the obvious challenges of applying ecocritical thought to premodern literature is that the connections to the present environmental crisis are not always obvious. How can a medieval drawing of the world shape how we talk about and find solutions to the 21st century environmental crisis? What could Edmund Spenser possibly say about the environment that would have real and lasting effects on our present-day environmental catastrophe? We ask these questions of ourselves as well as others working in our field. It is not enough to simply point out premodern conceptions of the environment; the history is only part of the story.

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Oecologies III: Eco-Feminist Imaginaries in Premodern Worlds: Women Writing Science in the Seventeenth Century  (L to R: Vin Nardizzi, Breanne Weber, Courtney Pollard, Frances Dolan. Photo Credit: Tiffany Jo Werth)

As we walk, bike, and drive through the Davis campus, we are actively reminded that we live and study in an area of California that provides food as far north as Canada and as far east as China. The almond we eat while working in a library in Scotland was most likely grown ten miles from our campus. Working in this area of California can be illuminating to our work in the premodern. As we read agricultural manuals from the sixteenth century and puzzle over their pictures, we are reminded that industrialization began much earlier than the late nineteenth century. As we explain environmental catastrophe through the narratives of pre-industrial thinkers, we are further reminded that nothing really has changed, and it is foolish to believe that it has. Shakespeare lived in a time very much like our own where deforestation was widespread and pollution choked the Thames. When we look at the premodern narratives that continue to influence, although indirectly, people today, we are attempting to better understand how the past can give insight to our present. We are reminded as we read poems on atoms that premodern societies understood the organic nature of our bodies and that we will necessarily return to dust. Their anxieties are our anxieties, and when we work to understand their conceptions of the ecological world, we are working to better understand the foundation of environmental crisis. The saying still goes that there is no need to make every mistake ourselves—someone has probably already made them. We keep this in mind as we read, and we hopefully can use what we’ve read to better illuminate our own ecological reality.