“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.