Inventing the Past at the Virginia Dare Winery

Frances E. Dolan, University of California, Davis

Back when I was freer to explore California, I was driving with my partner through Sonoma County, heading south on US 101, when I spotted a sign for the Virginia Dare winery in Geyserville. Recognizing the name, I urged him to pull over so we could check it out. What we quickly discovered was a rebranding of one of Francis Ford Coppola’s wineries.

Why did I want to investigate and why am I sharing this with you now? As many will recall, Virginia Dare was the first child born to English Colonists in America (in 1587). But what I did not know at first, and what might be less familiar to other pre-modernists, is that Virginia Dare was also the name of a popular brand of wine, indeed the most popular wine made in the United States between 1835 (when the company was founded) and prohibition. Coppola bought the brand name in 2013 and began releasing Virginia Dare wines in 2014. The billboard that caught my eye repurposes the image and font of old Virginia Dare wine labels and advertising, and boasts of “American Wines since 1835.” But the winery’s website evokes stories about the sixteenth-century Virginia in ways I’d like to discuss. In mobilizing stories about the premodern past, while also reanimating the wine’s earlier branding, the winery’s website conjures a fantasy of Virginia as an icon for American identity conjured up in a period it never acknowledges: the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when anti-immigrant and anti-black movements latched onto the birth and christening of a white baby girl as an origin story that served white supremacy.1

Coppola’s comments on why he wanted to call his winery Virginia Dare focus on the sixteenth century and his own memories from the twentieth century, rather than the period that connects the two. “The myth of Virginia Dare always intrigued me,” he confided to an interviewer, “and as a child I remember the wine because of the pretty blond girl on the label and the ‘Say it again, Virginia Dare’ jingle they used to advertise on the radio. . . . My goal is to revive the brand so that it isn’t lost to future generations.”2

But Virginia Dare is always, inevitably, lost. She was born on Roanoke Island in 1587. So, like everyone else in what was first christened the “Lost Colony” in the 1830s, Virginia disappeared from the historical record.3 She stands as a first, an origin. And not. We don’t know what happened to her. But we can know the history that linked Virginia Dare to wine. This is a history that the winery both depends on and suppresses.

The Paul Garrett wine company started producing Virginia Dare wine in the early twentieth century. At first the company relied on the scuppernong grape native to North Carolina and named the wine Virginia Dare, since she was born on the island where Scuppernong was supposed to have originated, Roanoke. But soon the demand exceeded the supply and the Garrett company began to rely on grapes imported from California, despite its emphasis on the local nature of its wine and the tie between Virginia Dare and the scuppernong.4 The Virginia Dare winery today engages in a similar slight of hand, pointing to a vine it has planted from a clipping of the “mother vine,” a supposedly 400-year-old scuppernong vine in Manteo, North Carolina that was most likely planted in the nineteenth century. This enables the winery to insert itself intowhat it calls “the rich heritage of American wine making”—despite the fact that it does not grow or use scuppernongs. Asserting that “this vine was cultivated in pre-colonial times by Native Americans, and by English colonists after them,” the winery’s website invents and appropriates aNative American winemaking tradition.5

The slight of hand goes farther than this. Known as “the big white” grape, the scuppernong was often praised in the nineteenth and early twentieth century in racialized terms, as historian Erika Hannickel shows. Writing in 1884, winemaker Warton J. Green, in a promotional brochure for his vineyard, claimed that the scuppernong was an especially valuable native grape, a “grape prodigy,” because its discovery was “coeval with Caucasian rule on the continent” and that scuppernong wines were more healthful because “pure’ and “without adulteration or artificial flavoring,” in contrast to foreign wines that were “impure and sophisticated abominations.”6 Whether he knows it or not, Green resurrects language used by Englishmen in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries to justify growing grapes and making wine in England, rather than importing wine, which was often spoiled by the time it reached England and adulterated by various efforts to improve its taste . The earliest pitches for English winemaking were always about the close connections between wine and blood, the risks of imbibing foreign and contaminated drinks, as well as the costs of relying on imports. Wine has never been separable from race; indeed, it is part of the etymology of that term in English.7 The meaning of race specific to wine is an early word for “terroir,” what distinguishes one wine from others, and what binds soil, climate, plant, and human consumer. When Garrett branded his wine as local in its relation to North Carolina and Virginia Dare, he added a post-reconstruction layer to this association of wine, purity, and race. Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that his early glass bottles were embossed with the confederate flag.8

Some of those bottles had the labels “Pocahontas” and “Minnehaha” as well as “Virginia Dare.”Here too, the new Virginia Dare winery follows the lead of its predecessor. It is currently closed because of the pandemic, but it sold Navajo jewelry in its store and its restaurant, Wero, served what it called Native American fare. The winery’s website, under the label “History and Mystery,” presents at some length a story it calls “a Native American myth” but that depends on one text it does not name, Sallie Southall Cotten’s lengthy poem, The White Doe: The Fate of Virginia Dare: An Indian Legend, printed for the author in 1901, under the auspices of the Colonial Dames of America. Cotten wrote at a time when interest in Virginia Dare revived, leading to countless poems, novels, and pageants about her as well as a monument dedicated to her in 1923. Cotten, a white woman from the South, describes Roanoke Island as home to “a wealth of climbing vines and clustering grapes which point instinctively to grape culture” and also as “the first home of the English race in America,” tying those two together.9

Cotten’s poem is the source of the name for one of the Virginia Dare wines, “Two Arrowheads,” and of the “Legend of the White Doe,” presented on the winery’s website. The website’s legend, like Cotten’s text and many of the fantasies about Virginia Dare, imagine that she survived and grew to adulthood, living with Indians yet always remaining both apart from and above them. As the winery presents it, Virginia, transformed into a white doe by a jealous sorcerer, is simultaneously struck by a charmed arrowhead––which transforms her back into a woman––and by a silver arrowhead (which Cotten specifies was a gift from Queen Elizabeth I). As the winery’s version puts it:

As the two arrowheads pierced her heart, the white doe changed back into a fair maid, but it was too late. As she fell dying, she whispered her true name. Then she was gone.

And where she fell, the stories tell us, her blood soaked the soil. Lush grapes grew there, the white scuppernong variety cultivated by the locals. The fruit on the vines was forever stained with her blood. And that, the legend says, was how wine in the Americas became red.

Virginia Dare was her name. The White Doe. The first born of English descent in the new world. The woman whose myth became the legend of American wine. And so to this day, when we savor American wines, we toast her: Virginia Dare, an American original.10

Cotten’s subtitle is “an Indian legend” and her preface insists that “The legend of the White Doe is probably the oldest and possibly the least known of all the legends which relate to the history of the United States. It is a genuine American legend” (Cotten p. 6). She does not, however, explain her source. She then stands invisibly behind this website’s reference to “stories,” which turn out to be one story of very particular provenance. Her legend sutures together associations around whiteness, scuppernongs, indigenous people, and wine.

For me, this winery and its promotional materials are a perfect example of a purported interest in the past that depends on and propagates misinformation and uses one past to erase another. In the case of the Virginia Dare winery, a fiction about the past works to enshrine a smiling blond girl as the American original. The branding for the winery announces an interest in the past; it insists the late sixteenth century is connected to their current enterprise and necessary to understanding and valuing it. They dig the past, but they also bury it. The winery defines its brand through a sense of another place, roots in a fabricated history, and memorializing a vine whose grapes it does not use in its winemaking. It relies on history as a cover up. It also relies on literature as license. If you call something a story, tale, or legend, then you can say anything with impunity. “The Legend of the White Doe” as presented on the winery’s website, manages to rely on, repurpose, and erase: the history of wine in America; the long history of linking blood and wine and its complicity in racism; and the abbreviated history of Virginia Dare. Perhaps its worst erasure is of the story of Manteo, who gives his name to one of the wines. Called on the winery’sfact sheet “a legendary Indian,” Manteo was a Croatan chief who had been brought to England to meet Queen Elizabeth and was on his return baptized on Roanaoke, about a week before the infant Virginia Dare was.11 The bottle label depicts Manteo as both the background to and a kind of Virgin Mother to tiny Virginia;12 like her, he disappears from the historical record with the lost colony, only to be reanimated as part of these “legends.” The wine label thus misrecognizes and appropriates indigenous people’s history, and perpetuates a fantasy that white English colonists were the first, the true, the only real Americans.


Notes

[1] Robert D. Arner, “The Romance of Roanoke: Virginia Dare and the Lost Colony in American Literature,” Southern Literary Journal 10.2 (1978): 5-45; Andrew Lawler,
https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/made-by-history/wp/2018/05/24/how-a-child-born-more-than-400-years-ago-became-a-symbol-of-white-nationalism/.

[2] Linda Murphy, “Francis Ford Coppola Reinvents Virginia Dare Wines,” Sonoma Magazine, July 2016, https://www.sonomamag.com/francis-ford-coppola-virginia-dare-wines/.

[3] Eliza Lansford Cushing coined the term in an 1837 article in The Ladies Companion entitled “Virginia Dare; or, The Lost Colony.” Her account seems to have inspired the fuller fictional elaborations of writers such as Cotten. See Andrew Lawler, The Secret Token: Myth, Obsession, and the Search for the Lost Colony of Roanoke (New York: Anchor, 2018), pp. 276- 77.

[4] Thomas Pinney, A History of Wine in America: From the Beginnings to Prohibition(Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989), 415-419; Alexia Jones Helsley, A History of North Carolina Wine From Scuppernong to Syrah (Charleston: History Press, 2010).

[5] https://www.ffcwtoo.com/en/history-and-mystery/scuppernong, accessed January 10, 2021. In recent months, the winery has changed its web address from Virginia Dare Winery to Francis Ford Coppola Winery, Too, but the content of the History & Mystery part of the website remains the same.

[6] Erica Hannickel, Empire of Vines: Wine Culture in America (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013), 143-44; Wharton J. Green, Tokay Vineyard (Boston, 1884), 24.

[7] Frances E. Dolan, Digging the Past: How and Why to Imagine Seventeenth-Century Agriculture (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2020), p. 95.

[8] https://baybottles.com/2016/11/06/garret-co-inc-virginia-dare-new-york/, accessed January 10, 2021.

[9] Sallie Southall Cotten, “Forgotten Facts and Fancies of American History,” The White Doe: The Fate of Virginia Dare: An Indian Legend (Philadelphia: J. P. Lippincott, 1909), p. x.

[10] https://www.ffcwtoo.com/en/history-and-mystery/the-legend-of-the-white-doe, accessed January 10, 2021

[11] On Manteo, see Coll Thrush, Indigenous London: Native Travelers at the Heart of Empire (Yale University Press, 2016), esp. pp. 35-36, 58-59.

[12] You can see this wine label at https://www.thefamilycoppola.com/en/store/wine/manteo/WCDC15, accessed January 10, 2021.

Notes from “Earth, Sea, Sky: An Environmental Humanities Research Network Exchange”

Laura Hutchingame, University of California Los Angeles

On 12 December 2020, an international group of scholars shared their research over Zoom, as part of the Earth, Sea, SkyOecologies working group. The scholars were Todd Borlik (University of Huddersfield); Debapriya Sarkar (University of Connecticut); Liam Lewis (University of Liverpool); and Bronwen Wilson (UCLA).

Todd Borlik discussed Olaus Magnus’s Carta Marina, a map printed in Venice in 1539,and proposed an ecocritical argument that  reads the Carta Marina as a vision of human monstrosity and insatiable hunger, which is ecologically self-destructive. Borlik pointed out that the commensurate size of ships and sea-beasts gives the impression of a reciprocal monstrosity; from the marine creatures’ point of view, the human ships would appear monstrous invaders. Borlik compared the Carta Marina to a map by Hendrick Hondius from 1636 in which bunches of fish hang from the cartouche, indicating that the oceans have been emptied, and that humans are the most significant predator on the seas.

Borlik showed, too, that the Carta Marina was part of a conflict about fishing rights in Scandinavia and that the monstrous elements in the map served to deter unauthorized fishing in Scandinavian waters. Further, Scotland is obscured on the map, despite the fact that Scotland enjoyed a claim to Scandinavian fisheries since the fifteenth century. Denmark had refused to acknowledge the treaty with Scotland, and Borlik suggested that the marriage of King James VI and I to Anne of Denmark might have been connected in part to politics surrounding Scandinavian fishing.

Debapriya Sarkar examined Lady Mary Wroth’s prose romance novel, Urania, published in 1621, to investigate how islands and shores function as a threshold, a liminal space, in the early modern imaginary. Islands and shores are prominent in early modern English literature and their presence in literature reflects the imperial ambitions of England. But the island is also the site of important oppositional forces. Sarkar focused on a particular moment that reveals a notable transfer of power.  In Wroth’s romance, the protagonist is an aristocratic woman who finds herself on an island, accompanied by her brother, Amphilanthus, who must throw her in the ocean in order to save her. Sarkar noted that as Urania enters the water, her emotional turmoil becomes transferred to the ocean. This, Sarkar argued, embodies  a maritime ecology connected to female subjectivity, which represents the dynamism of human emotion. 

Liam Lewis argued that representations of noise and sound are culturally managed, and that if we can become aware of how we manage these sounds, we can have positive effects on the wildlife in the ocean. Describing the history of the hydrophone in the twentieth century, which allowed underwater recording or listening, Lewis asked: how can we conceptualize sound before and after the hydrophone? In answer, Lewis focused on an illustration from the Irish Voyage of Saint Brendan, a manuscript produced in 1047-1048, and Jacques Cousteau’s 1956 film Le Monde du Silence, as representative cases. In the Voyage of Saint Brendan, Brendan and his brothers sail in search of paradise, and at a crucial point in the journey, Brendan sings loudly to the point of waking the ocean creatures, who join him in singing. Le Monde du Silence, one of the first films to use ocean cinematography to depict the ocean as an underwater paradise, is not silent at all. But most of the sounds that accompany the cinematography are not produced from the hydrophone, but rather overlaid sound effects to mimic the sound of sunken ships, scuba tank bubbles, minor keys for eerie moments, or trumpets for triumphant moments of exploration. In other words,  the techniques used to depict underwater life actually obscure the real sounds of that life.

The last speaker, Bronwen Wilson, considered the compass, or wind rose, to introduce the spaces of elemental forces in between the abstract cartographic grid and the embodied viewer of Willem Jansz. Blaeu’s Nova Totius Americae. She discussed how compasses operated visually. For instance, users become repositioned in relation to depicted terrains.  Compasses can also be pictorial signs, such as in maps made after Piri Reis’s Book of Navigation. Wilson focused on two prospects, by Guillaume-Joseph Grelot and by Melchior Lorck, both with the artists seen at work. She showed how the abstract line associated with the compass can be multivalent. Grelot’s drawing reveals an artist imagining himself as a human compass—the artist’s quill is similar to the compass needle. Similarly, Lorck’s Prospect of Constantinople emphasizes horizontal movement, and while the flatness of the compass rose typically suggests views seen from above, Lorck prompts the viewer to lay the paper flat and to think about the vertical axis in order to reconcile these two poles of the image. 

This research share was generative for those who were able to attend and we hope to see you again for an upcoming research share on 19 January 2021 by faculty members involved with the UCHRI working group: “On the sea and coastal ecologies: early modern pasts and uncertain futures.”

Reading Notes from the Sea: an Oecologies Reading Group

Tiffany Jo Werth, University of California Davis, English

On October 2, 2020, the Oecologies Reading Group gathered virtually via Zoom to discuss readings related to this year’s theme of “On the Sea and Coastal Ecologies.” It was also the inaugural “Sea” event for the Oe-adjacent Earth, Sea, Sky network, who are joined this year by faculty from a University of California Humanities Research Institute multicampus faculty working group. We’re thrilled to welcome these scholars and look forward to a series of virtual conversations across the year. 

Over twenty-five Oe scholars and affiliates from around the globe engaged with readings selected by the reading group facilitators, Vin Nardizzi (UBC, English), Debapriya Sarkar (University of Connecticut, Maritime Studies), and Tom White (Oxford, English). The readings were 1) Helen M. Rozwadowski, “A Long Sea Story” from her Vast Expanses: A History of the Oceans (2018), and 2)  Renisa Mawani, “The Free Sea” from her Across Oceans of Law (2018), and, as an optional third selection, 3) Surabhi Ranganathan’s ArcGIS collection of mini-essays, “The Law of the Sea” (2020). Joining us was one of the authors, historian of science Helen Rozwadowski, who engaged us productively in questions about her research on the sea.

Following brief introductions to the three essays, we divided into three breakout rooms to facilitate small group conversation. Each room developed its own oceanic ecological thread but with notable cross-currents. Vin’s group generated a set of words—cephalopod, flood, foam, plankton, fog, technology, bottom—that opened up conversations about relationships between depth and surface and the jurisdictional lines that delimit them. The etymology of “fathom-line” and its utility led to discussion of what it might mean to think about “ocean as method.” Similarly, in Debapriya’s breakout room, participants explored how we might define and know the sea. Questions of scale, especially as pertaining to a vertical or horizontal axis, prompted thinking about the relationship of limits to a “free,” “incomprehensible,” and “timeless” history of the ocean sea. The fluidity and mutability of the ocean also emerged as a theme in Tom’s group, where members drew on Rozwadowski’s long pre-human history of the ocean to frame changing and comparatively recent political fortunes and overlapping sovereignties in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. Technologies developed for containing, mapping, and navigating the ocean, including the crucial chronometer, amplified our understanding of the relationship of colonial centers to the peripheries and margins, even on the “vast” and “free” sea.  This relationship was revealed, too, in the long legal influence of Grotius, and related Dutch and other colonial land reclamation schemes, an influence on infrastructure and oceanic shipping routes that in the early twentieth-century resulted in a spectacular challenge to Canada’s practice of excluding immigrants from India. When the Japanese vessel Komagata Maru arrived in Vancouver, Canada carrying several hundred Indians, most of the migrants were denied entry into the country and repatriated to Kolkata.

The reading group also began to compile a working bibliography of scholarship that came up in conversation. If you have thoughts or suggestions, I welcome you to send them to Laura Hutchingame (lhutchingame@g.ucla.edu ), one of our wonderful graduate research assistants, who is creating an Endnote database for the working group this year. 

Our next reading group will convene in February 2021 and will shift our disciplinary focus to art history. It will be led by Lyle Massey (UC Irvine, Art History) and Bronwen Wilson (UCLA, Art History).  If you’re interested to join us, please keep an eye out for further details on the Oecologies Facebook and Twitter feeds. 

Why Is It so Hard to Write When the World Is Ending? (A Blog Post about Paralysis)

David K. Coley, Simon Fraser University

Back in early March, while the world was watching a “regional viral threat” grow into a global pandemic, a few people started nudging me to “write a quick something about COVID-19 and the plague.” These nudges made some sense. My book Death and the Pearl Maiden: Plague, Poetry, England had been out for about a year, journal reviews had started cropping up, and suddenly the past I’d researched and theorized seemed a little less distant. It was also fast becoming clear that other medievalists were already writing various quick somethings about COVID-19 and the plague, rolling out think pieces and blog posts and Tweet-threads at an intimidating pace. Friends and colleagues who had been listening to me hold forth about the “Black Death” (a problematic moniker to be certain) for the better part of a decade reasoned that I, too, might have something to contribute. My Associate Dean encouraged me to pitch a piece to The Conversation (which promises “academic rigour” to go with its “journalistic flair”); my department’s communications guru asked me to make a video from quarantine discussing my book (I obliged on that one, albeit awkwardly); even my parents weighed in, hoping perhaps that their medievalist son might finally write something they’d want to read.

In general, I think I am a good colleague and son, and I am responsive to suggestions. I’m also not stupid. I know that you’ve got to strike while the iron’s hot; I know that you should sell when you can, for you are not for all markets; and I know that when your chances fall in your lap like that, you’ve got to recognize them for what they really are. So I sat down and tried to write a quick something about COVID-19 and the plague.

I won’t say I’ve gotten nowhere, but I’ve not gotten very far. Here, in chronological order, are some opening sentences that I have produced since March:

It is a strange sensation, as someone who studies and writes about the distant past, to find my work suddenly regarded as relevant.

Let’s start with this simple fact: COVID-19 is not the Black Death.

What comes after a global pandemic? What does the future look like when the present seems so bleak? Looking to the medieval past might be one way to consider such pressing questions. (NB: I’m so ashamed of these three sentences. Please let them never see the light of day.)

We are now three months into a global pandemic.

All of a sudden, everyone’s an expert. (NB: This one still has potential.)

None of these is “Call me Ishmael,” but that’s hardly a searing indictment. “Call me Ishmael” is already taken, and besides, with the exception of that garbage about looking to the medieval past they all seem like reasonable beginnings to a quick something about COVID-19 and the plague, something my parents might want to read, something that might even engender a surprisingly hostile response or two from a fellow academic. But nothing has come of these somethings.

I have some thoughts about why.

To begin, I have increasingly come to recognize that despite its title, its pestilential subject matter, and the rat on its cover, my book about the plague really isn’t about the plague. There has, as it happens, been an exciting new wave of scholarship on the plague in recent years, the most important of which (in case anyone’s asking my opinion) is the work of Monica Green, which enriches our understanding of pandemic in profound ways. Death and the Pearl Maiden is actually less interested in the plague than in responses to the plague, in the question of how literature might speak a traumatic event that was simultaneously too terrible to invoke and too all-encompassing to ignore. 

The puzzle that scholars like Monica Green—let’s call them real plague scholars—are piecing together has to do with the lingering mysteries of the pandemic itself, the specific phylogenetic tree from which it emerged, the relationships among the medieval wave and other outbreaks, the precise circumstances that rendered it so virulent. The problem that Death and the Pearl Maiden seeks to address is instead the problem of silence. The book implicitly wonders about all those medieval chronicles that insert a casual note about the death of half of Europe between a lengthy account of the election of a new abbot and some extended whinging about the ornaments that have gone missing from the monastic chapel (I’m looking at you, Meaux Abbey Chronicle). It more explicitly wonders about a brilliant and socially engaged corpus of literature that relegates the signal cultural trauma of its age to a short parable about three drunks searching for death and some one liners in a story about horny chickens (I’m looking at you, Geoffrey Chaucer). The book also addresses our own contemporary expectations about what responses to a plague should look like. To that last point, we seem, especially following the blistering introduction to Boccaccio’s Decameron, to expect a medieval literary response that matched, in both tone and gravity, the grim event itself. Surely we would exhibit such dignity, such narrative grace, when confronted with our own pandemic. Wouldn’t we? Wouldn’t we? Of course we would.

Second (and here I suspect I speak for others who are strapped into the roller coaster of this awful year), the parameters of this thing keep hurtling outwards at a ferocious clip. One of the lessons of the Black Death, of course, is that the changes it engendered shuddered across almost all of the social, economic, religious, and cultural systems of the medieval world, that the impact of the disease didn’t stop with its obscene body count. But to witness similar causal impacts develop in the terrifying time lapse of the present, to live and participate in an ongoing pandemic reality, is very different from studying it. In just the past few months, we have plunged from the terror of a new disease and a wild frenzy of hand washing into a series of worldwide protests against racialized violence and police brutality, into a reckoning with how systemic racism and structural inequalities drive the spread of the virus, into an unflinching recognition of how a pernicious economic system will sacrifice its own adherents on the impossible altar of continuous growth. Remember how we all scrambled to get a few disposable masks back in March? By May, those same masks had already become a shibboleth in the most ludicrous debate over personal freedom since the invention of the seat-belt. And over all of it, at least in North America, we have watched as a callow and narcissistic American president whipsawed the United States government from ignorance to xenophobia to paralysis to fear-mongering to magical thinking to chest-thumping ignorance; watched as that government encouraged our colleagues and students back into universities equipped with little more than branded face masks and hand sanitizer; watched as they sent our children into packed school hallways and punished them for speaking out about it; watched as they reminded us again and again just how expendable we all are, how expendable we have always been; watched as they leveraged the greatest public health crisis in a century into a voter suppression scheme that mimicked, in both scope and brazenness, similar strategies from the Jim Crow era. It has been a lot to take in.

It’s clear that the strike-slips at all these social and cultural fault lines—urgent and long building as they may be—are a logical result of the pressures of this pandemic. That, too, is a lesson that those of us who study the medieval plague ought to have learned. Despite what you might have read, the Black Death did not singlehandedly allow entree to “the fresh air of common sense” or lead survivors toward the “intellectual overthrow of the scholastic-medicine establishment in the Middle Ages.” (Seriously? You’re better than that, New Yorker.) It did, however, catalyze significant social changes in the medieval and early modern world, both for good and for ill. In some respects, then, we might recognize the rapid post-pandemic ascendency of the Black Lives Matter movement, which had already been building steadily for several years before the murders George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, as a contemporary analogue to such catalytic shifts. More loosely (and this is, I know, a deeply flawed parallel), we might also see the ongoing protests in cities like Portland and Seattle—movements marked by righteous and justified anger and tinged with both productive and repressive violence—as latter-day avatars of the Rising of 1381, an explosive expression of long-standing social grievances sparked by one ill-conceived poll tax too many in an unsettled post-plague environment. (Does this make the reactionary responses of our capitalist ruling classes analogues of the 1351 Statute of Labourers? Way to be on the wrong side of history, guys!) 

In our hyperlinked, TL/DR, speed-of-thought world, such shocks come quickly, and their aftershocks follow fast behind. And—speaking for myself now—I am a slow writer. Sometimes I’m barely a writer at all. I pick through evidence and let it sit around in unruly piles, let it hang out with some primary texts, let it chat with a few draft paragraphs and some illegible notes. Every time I think I’m closing in on my quick something about COVID-19 and the plague, that something turns out to be already gone, rattled by the next earthquake, swallowed by the next conflagration, drowned in the next flood. In my not infrequent moments of self doubt, I fear that this pace makes me something of a brachiosaur. Some day I will be crushed under layers of sediment, my bones squeezed into oil and burned for a few seconds of heat. I am no blogger.

Brachiosaur or not, I am finding that the biggest impediment to writing during a pandemic is, at the end of the day, the pandemic itself, its smothering presence, its terrible threat to family and friends and self, the anxious sense of contingency that marches before it, the reality of the thing, the possibility of illness, of death. My older daughter is leaving for her first year at University (which will be offering a safe-ish mixture of online and in-person classes), and I am alternately thrilled and terrified for her. My father and my mother are old, and my stepparents are older. My closest friends have a medically fragile child and live in a highly affected area. The border between my new country and my old country—between my family and my family—has been closed for months, and it shows no immediate sign of re-opening. A quick something about COVID-19 and the plague? A blog post? Strike while the iron is hot? Seriously?

Why strike while the iron is hot? Why strike at all when this is what’s heating the iron? What kind of vulture are you to strike at this hot iron? What kind of monster are you to pick up your hammer and tongs? When your friends are suffering? When your colleagues are dying? How dare you step to the forge at a time like this? You’re better than that, David.

One of the central points around which I organized Death and the Pearl Maiden was the recognition, developed in contemporary trauma theory, that severe trauma “exceeds the resources of representational practice—and the ability of the memory to make sense of it.”1 In the case of the literature I looked at in my book, I considered the plague through precisely that challenge to representation, which is to say through its necessary absence. The plague emerged in the poems of the Pearl Manuscript, I speculated, not directly but rather where it appeared to be suppressed, in those places where it was conspicuously elided: in Pearl’s evasive punning and wordplay; in Cleanness’s displacement of violence onto biblical allusion; in Patience’s pregnant narrative embellishments; in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’s subversion of Romance clichés. Such narrative gestures might not directly invoke the plague itself, I argued, but they could nonetheless reveal the pressure that it exerted on writers working in its shadow. Taken together, they allow us to glimpse the Black Death within the negative literary space that trauma creates, to see, for a moment, the outline of the plague in the quiet eddy of its slipstream.

In the hands of a writer like the nameless maker of Pearl, such pressure on representational praxis crystallized a series of compelling, harrowing, beautiful, and (in at least two cases) transcendent works, each sengeley in synglure within English literature. In the hands of an academic urged by friends and colleagues to write a quick something about COVID-19 and the plague, such pressure has altogether less impressive results. Even in this blog post (which I fully intend to finish, Derrick and Vin; look, I’m almost there) I recognize in diminished form the jittery hallmarks of plague writing that I identified in the work of the Pearl poet: the recourse to narrative cliché and stock allusion; the sublimation of the terrible realities of pandemic disease into a narrative of personal anxiety and frustration; the pathological avoidance of writing itself; the embarrassment of admitting to struggling when the struggles of others are so much greater, so much more important, so much more painful. Such writerly paralyses are not, I think, just signs of mental exhaustion or fatigue. They are, rather, responses to the pandemic, indicia of this new horror that seems now to close in on us from all sides.

One more narrative cliché to dull the edge; one more stuttering matryoshka-doll allusion to prop up the effort; apologies to one or two more poets who wrote in the shadow of terrible events. I thought I was fatigued, but I was not fatigued. In short, I was—I am—afraid.

___________________________________________

Notes

[1] D. Vance Smith, “Plague, Panic Space, and the Tragic Medieval Household,” South Atlantic Quarterly 98 (1999): 367-414, at 383-84. This idea precedes Smith’s work of course, but I love the way he encapsulates it in this phrase.

David Coley Wins 2020 Labarge Prize

We at Oe are thrilled to announce that our very own David Coley has won the 2020 Labarge Prize for his (very timely) book, Death and the Pearl Maiden: Plague, Poetry, England!

David’s book explores the understated but decisive influence of the Black Death on fourteenth-century literature, and especially the works of the Pearl Poet.

Awarded by the Canadian Society of Medievalists, the Labarge Prize recognizes the best book of the previous year by a Canadian medievalist.

You can read the announcement by CSM here. Congratulations, David! 

On the Sea: Reading Notes

Vin Nardizzi, University of British Columbia

On 8 May 2020, Oecologies kicked off its year-long programming on “Sea.” Selected by Mo Pareles (UBC, English), our shared reading was Omise’eke Natasha Tinsley’s article “Black Atlantic, Queer Atlantic: Queer Imaginings of the Middle Passage,” which appeared in GLQ in 2008. Over 20 international Oe scholars and affiliates from across the Humanities disciplines gathered virtually. We discussed how Tinsley’s article turns an absence in the archives – records of queer experience among enslaved persons – into an opportunity to query what an archive is and, in the process, to reimagine the form of the scholarly article. Our Zoom chat ranged from topics as diverse as queer philology (a central methodological component of Tinsley’s analysis), speculation as critical method, scholarly genealogies (for instance, the implicit whiteness of some foundational queer theory), and the practicalities of pedagogy, including syllabus writing. 

The reading group will reconvene in October 2020 to discuss texts in the blue humanities by Helen M. Rozwadowski, Renisa Mawani, and Surabhi Ranganathan. These readings promise to shift our focus from the Atlantic waters to those of the Indian and Pacific Oceans by spotlighting legal disputes during the early modern period about the “free sea.” If you’re interested to chat about these exciting texts with us, then keep an eye out for further details on Oecologies’s social media feeds.

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.