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

Peter Remien, Lewis-Clark State College

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Notes from the In-Between: an Oecologies Reading Group

Elijah Two Bears, University of California, Davis

On Friday, October 15th, 2022, the Oecologies research cluster gathered virtually to discuss the in-between of ocean and sky. Led by Dr. Tiffany Jo Werth, this conversation began the final part of the multi-year research project, “Earth/Sea/Sky.” Our discussion addressed three works, Eva Horn’s article, “Air as Medium,” from the journal Grey Room (2018), Valerie Allen’s chapter, “Airy Something,” from the edited collection, Elemental Ecocriticism (2015), and Carla Mazzio’s article, “The History of Air: Hamlet and the Trouble with Instruments,” from South Central Review (2009).

Dr. Werth opened the meeting by returning to previous reading groups’ discussions of what it means to think with the watery medium, focusing on the concepts of depth, saturation, and decompression. This helped us think about what is different about the sky. In particular, we attended to the in-between quality of air as both separate from and mixed with terrestrial and aquatic environments, like the oxygen in water or gas expelled from the earth. We considered the pressing urgency of visible air, from conspicuous pollution in the San Joaquin Valley to wildfires across North America. We linked the urgency of opaque skies in 2022 to the 1960s in Southern California and even to the early modern period through Mazzio’s exploration of the anxiety around London’s air. Our initial discussion also involved questions around discipline: are there disciplinary differences in thinking about air? How do disciplines attempt the airy challenge of thinking without form? We reflected on art history’s engagement with air, especially Allen’s reading of Caravaggio’s painting, The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, and the “empty space” created for Thomas to stick his finger in Christ’s wound (77).

Next, we shifted to thinking about nonhumans who inhabit the air. Previous Oecologies reading groups on the sea often directly addressed creatures like dolphins, fish, and whales, but we noted an absence of airy creatures in our readings, as well as more general conversations about sky as an environment and element. Dr. Werth asked the group to share our favorite early modern characters or entities that pass through, inhabit, or question the air. These included Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Ariel in The Tempest, and Satan as an in-between traveler in Paradise Lost. We also considered early modern preoccupations with rainbows, insects, shadows, and birds. The “sweet breath” of air was contrasted with dirty, thick air, an element which might carry plague.

Turning more explicitly to the three readings, we spent the later part of the session discussing two concepts that each author investigated: the affect and shape of air. In reflecting on the emotional realm of the sky, we noted Mazzio’s use of melancholia and Allen’s association of air with doubt. We also thought of common descriptors like “atmosphere,” which rely on airy language to communicate an audience’s affective reaction to art. We worked through Allen’s geometry of air, especially the challenge of thinking about air using triangles, a form that seems less readily organic than rounder shapes. Participants brought in examples of early modern texts that reflect a connection between air and geometry, like Cavendish’s Atomic Poems. We then turned our attention to air and the body, particularly the shape of air as it moves through lungs and pores and breath in the theater and opera. Our discussion ended as we reflected on how air calls us to allow fresh forms of perception to influence our connective imaginations, building on Mazzio’s theorization of air as a source of productive indirection.

While our discussion had many twists and turns, a consistent through-line was the recursive nature of the anxiety and urgency around opaque skies. When the air becomes visible through pollution, smoke, and disease, early moderns and we living now are forced to reckon with our precarious existence, one reliant on an invisible matter. Air, as in between earth, sea, and sky, calls us to collective witnessing of the harm we have done to our planet across time.

Dr. Werth encouraged Oecologies members interested in hosting their own reading group this winter or spring to send proposals to her ( and Dr. Vin Nardizzi (

Eisteddfod (‘Sitting’): Queering Oceanic Voyages

By: Liam Lewis (University of Liverpool) and Vin Nardizzi (University of British Columbia)

In May 2022 we met at Bodega Bay Marine Lab in California to reflect on queer ocean voyages. Sitting in full view of the gorgeous ocean, we celebrated our time together as creative creatures who had taken a journey and an imaginative leap into the world of words.

Focusing on poetry as an act of creation and festival, we shared poetry and prose together in the medieval Welsh tradition of ‘sitting’ or eisteddfod. In medieval Wales an eisteddfod was a festival in which bards and minstrels competed for patronage, and the tradition continues to this day. Inspired by this rich tradition, we turned to the ocean as support and inspiration for thinking about the roles of  poetry and poetic discourse in ancient and pre-modern conceptions of sea travel. Sometimes words communicate metaphor and at other times the physical reality of water. Sitting together to listen to each other, we explored queerness, travel, and oceanic spaces through the medium of the spoken word. Our time together was a queering of normative academic practice by putting process and creation before output and completion.

Eisteddfod participants were invited to reflect on a piece of shared reading in advance: Patricia Yaeger’s ‘Sea Trash, Dark Pools, and the Tragedy of the Commons’, PMLA, 125.3 (2010). We then invited them to choose or write a short poem or prose excerpt to bring to the workshop, at which we listened to each other’s work. These were  examples of premodern oceanic writing, modern responses to the key themes of the workshop, or even some personal creations! This time together enabled us to inhabit the shoreline as a space for reflection on queer lives and spaces, and to spotlight the role of the sea and water in the act of poetic creation. 

Some of the readings were recorded, and some are visual or written word responses. Let’s explore! 

The eisteddfod began with a reading of an infamous passage from the early modern poem Hero and Leander (ll. 160-87) by Christopher Marlowe. Vin Nardizzi was our reader. The inspiration for this passage – and indeed for our workshop – were some comments made during an online reading group by Vincent Steinfeld (University of Oregon MA at the time; now UBC PhD). Listen to Vin reading Marlowe here:

Vin Nardizzi’s reading of Marlowe
But when he knew it was not Ganymed,
For under water he was almost dead,
He heav'd him up, and, looking on his face,
Beat down the bold waves with his triple mace,
Which mounted up, intending to have kiss'd him,
And fell in drops like tears because they miss'd him.
Leander, being up, began to swim,
And, looking back, saw Neptune follow him:
Whereat aghast, the poor soul gan to cry,
"O, let me visit Hero ere I die!"
The god put Helle's bracelet on his arm,
And swore the sea should never do him harm.
He clapped his plump cheeks, with his tresses played,
And, smiling wantonly, his love bewrayed;
He watched his arms, and, as they open'd wide
At every stroke, betwixt them would he slide,
And steal a kiss, and then run out and dance,
And, as he turn'd, cast many a lustful glance,
And throw him gaudy toys to please his eye

Watching the waves in Bodega Bay as the poem was read aloud brought to life the vividness of the imagery in this poem, as Neptune grasps at Leander’s body in the water!
We were gifted a multilingual reading of Italo Calvino’s  “Blood, Sea” from t zero (Harcourt Inc., 1967) read by Elisa A. Daniele. The strong imagery made us reflect on the connection between water and bodies as the narrator is a drop of blood. She reads the poem in English and Italian here:

Elisa A. Daniele’s English Reading
Elisa A. Daniele’s Italian Reading

Here’s a quick peep:

This is a distinction I might bring up to give a clearer idea of before and now: before, we swam, and now we are swum. But on sober reflection I prefer not to go into this, because in reality even when the sea was outside I swam in it the same way I do now, without any intervention of my will, that is to say I was swum even then, no more nor less than now, there was a current that enfolded me and carried me this way and that, a gentle and soft fluid, in which Zylphia and I wallowed, turning on ourselves, hovering over abysses of ruby-colored transparence, hiding among turquoise-colored filaments that wriggled up from the depths; but these sensations of movement -- wait and I'll explain it to you -- were due only to what? They were due to a kind of general pulsation, no, I don't want to confuse things with the way they are now, because since we've been keeping the sea closed inside us it's natural that in moving it should make this piston effect, but in those days you certainly couldn't have talked about pistons, because you would have had to imagine a piston without walls, a combustion chamber of infinite volume as the sea appeared infinite to us, or rather the ocean, in which we were immersed, whereas now everything is pulsation and beating and rumble and crackling, inside the arteries and outside, the sea within the arteries that accelerates its course as soon as I feel Zylphia's hand seeking mine, or rather, as soon as I feel the acceleration in the course of Zylphia's arteries as she feels my hand seeking hers (the two flows which are still the same flow of a same sea and which are joined beyond the contact of the thirsty fingertips); and also outside, the opaque thirsty outside that seeks dully to imitate the beat and rumble and crackling of inside, and vibrates in the accelerator under Signor Cècere's foot, and all the line of cars stopped at the exit from the superhighway tries to repeat the pulsing of the ocean now buried inside us, of the red ocean that was once without shores, under the sun.

You can find more of Calvino’s work at the following link:

Hillary Eklund shared a more sombre, reflective poem by Brenda Marie Osbey, from “Qu’on Arrive Enfin”, All Souls: Essential Poems (LSUP, 2015). Osbey served as Poet laureate of Louisiana from 2005 to 2007, and teaches at Louisiana State University. Hillary reflected on the poem’s themes of enslavement and the flood, thinking back to her own experiences of swamps, flooded landscapes, and cityscapes. Hear Hillary reading parts 2, 3 and 4 here:

Hillary Eklund’s reading of Osbey

We can share a few lines here to give a taste of the words as they appear on the page:

funny, no?
how we always return to this–
the city, the life
that slavery built,
tales altogether invented
as told by historians, founding fathers, the church.
but we are sick and tired of lies, dirty tricks and fraud,
and can only wish hard-hard-hard
that the lakes, the bayous, swamps large and small
will have swallowed it all
erased it all.

You can find more of this in the full collection:

Ashley Sarpong brought an innovative visual poem based on the shared reading we looked at before the eisteddfod. It’s an original poem called “Thus Spake the Sea Trash”, which we can share with you below.

“The sea functions in literature and culture as a trope instead of a biotic world or swarm of agencies. But even shadowy or unnatural tropes have real-world consequences. Figures of the boundless sea or the oceanic sublime encourage humans to treat it is an inexhaustible storehouse of goods. Oceanic ecocriticism invites us to examine the way ordinary figures of speech persist or echo forward in time; they continue to resound, regardless of their truth-value, working over and through us like a nightmare ideology.”

“How do we define ‘more than human’? Ocean plastic (a quasi-object once filled with human agency that exceeds this agency in its afterlife) fits this category. So does the waste oil swirling through the Gulf of Mexico. If ‘bright ships’ and exploding oil rigs are always leaving ‘this or that in fee’ we have to recognize literary artificats’ complicity in such acts of sabotage and embrace ecocriticism$ as a tactic for recognizing that sea trash also flows from novels and poetry.” 

“How does literature speak to a watery realm where exploitation and overconsumption are so deeply threaded?” 

“How do I interest you, reader, in the many ways in which literature lights up the financial fate of oceans? My first strategy is zoophilic; I’ve thrown around fish facts to amplify a shared sense of ocean in crisis. Second, I’ve deployed a new vocabulary, asking techno-ocean and ecocriticism to call forth a world where the BP oil spill is minor and transient: even its plumes of invisible oil offer a minimal example of the harm that comes when we accelerate the transformation of oceans into capital. Third, I’ve suggested that an analysis of inputs or externalized costs create subterranean entrances into the retail ocean”

“Ecocriticsm devolves into echocriticism, a practice of anachronistic reading inviting stories, novels, and other imaginative works about the sea to provide echo chambers, sites of wild or sober echolia, for the most pressing questions about the ocean’s and oceanic creatures’ survival.” 

“But living on the edge of hypertechnologized oceans, we need to throw our mythologies wide open. What is the loss of faith compared with the loss of the living ocean? How do we feel (or even breathe) when the ocean becomes ocean?”

“Ecocriticism$ explores the economic and symbolic logic that pushed us into this tragedy; it registers our imaginative techniques for handling the ocean’s supposed permanence, vastness, and incomprehensibility.” 

“We can approach the cyborg ocean and the tragedy of ocean wasting by thinking about the imaginary of corporate profiteering, in which oceans are places for stealing resources, dumping trash, and making money through shipping, oil drilling, and so on. Examining literary constellations of sea trash, vanished fish, and the techne of capitalist extraction offers a perverse set of terms for an ecocriticism$.”

“Wallerstein describes the environmental preconditions that allow capitalism to flourish. If the linchpin of this system is the relation between production and consumption (that is, the relation among those who own, those who produce, and those who consume), then oceanic resources, sea trash, and infrastructures like ports, ships, and oil rights have become preconditions for a more entrenched capitalist system. The sea is just another site where human relations take shape and connect through low-cost hardware and the freedom of an unregulated environment.”

Debapriya Sarkar read the evocative 17th-century poem “Similizing Birds to a Ship” by Margaret Cavendish, which made us look up to the birds swooping around Bodega Bay as we listened. We thought of long journeys travelled, and the subtle connection between water and air.

Birds from the cedars tall do take a flight
On stretchèd wings, to bear their bodies light.
As ships do sail over the ocean wide,
So birds do sail, and through the air do glide.
Their bodies are the keel; feet, cable rope;
The head, the steersman which doth guide the poop.
Their wings, as sails, with wind are stretched out wide,
But hard it is to fly against the tide.
For when the clouds do flow against their breast,
They weary grow, and on a bough do rest. 

At this point we listened to a prose-poem read by Sharon O’Dair. The poem was called “At the Bottom of New Lake” by Sonya Larson (Amazon Original Reads, 2018). Sharon introduces the poem, and her reasons for reading it at Bodega Bay, below:

“In 2018, Amazon published seven short stories called Warmer: “a collection of seven visions of a conceivable tomorrow by today’s most thought-provoking authors. Alarming, inventive, intimate, and frightening, each story can be read, or listened to, in a single breathtaking sitting.” One—“At the Bottom of New Lake”—captured me because author Sonya Larson spins differently the familiar question, “What are you doing to reduce your carbon footprint?” For this blog post, I’m presenting what I audaciously call a prose poem, one constructed from the story, from lines mostly by the main character, a poor immigrant girl named Chuntao Foon, who is quizzed by an overbearing white teacher about her carbon footprint and attitude toward a long-ago climate catastrophe.”

Before the Flood, people like us couldn’t walk right up to the ocean
never owned any beachside property.
It wiped out the mansions, and the rich people fled.
Underwater treasures leftover from the Flood
they were there for the taking. Rich people stuff
We got a house right on the water.
That was my New Lake, my water inlet,
my little path from the house that went directly to the water.
Like a private path to heaven.
Chuntao doesn’t burn fuels.
She rides a bike. She walks.
We are vegetarians—most of us from Guangdong are.
One lamp lights the whole kitchen, living room, and dining room,
Because in my house they’re all the same room.
I do believe in carbon footprints. I just think that yours is way bigger than mine.
The kids were smiling. Never before had I felt proud to be poor.

Liam Lewis finished the eisteddfod by reading an extract from the 12th century lai called ‘Guigemar’ by Marie de France. In the poem the main character, Guigemar, hunts a stag and is wounded in the thigh by his own arrow. He boards a mysterious ship, which sets sail to an equally mysterious island where he meets a beautiful lady in a tower. Here is the passage when the ship sets sail of its own accord. He read in the Old French and you can listen to the recording here:

Liam Lewis’s reading of “Guigemar”
El hafne out une sule nef,
dunt Guigemar choisi le tref.
Mult esteit bien aparilliee ;
defors e dedenz fu peiee,
nuls huem n’i pout trover jointure.
N’i out cheville ne closture
ki ne fust tute d’ebenus ;
suz ciel n’a or ki vaille plus.
La veile fu tute de seie :
mult est bele, ki la despleie.
Li chevaliers fu mult pensis ;
en la cuntree n’el païs
n’out unkes mes oï parler
que nes i peüst ariver.
Il vait avant, si descent jus ;
a grant anguisse munta sus.
Dedenz quida humes truver,
ki la nef deüssent guarder :
n’i aveit nul, ne nul ne vit.
En mi la nef trova un lit,
dunt li pecol e li limun
furent a l’oevre Salemun
taillié a or, tut a trifoire,
de ciprés e de blanc ivoire.
D’un drap de seie a or teissu
ert la coilte ki desus fu.
Les altres dras ne sai preisier ;
mes tant vos di de l’oreillier :
ki sus eüst sun chief tenu,
ja mais le peil n’avreit chanu.
Li coverturs de sabelin
volz fu de purpre Alexandrin.
Dui chandelabre de fin or
(li pire valeit un tresor)
el chief de la nef furent mis ;
desus out dous cirges espris.
De ceo s’esteit il merveilliez.
Il s’est sur le lit apuiez ;
repose sei, sa plaie duelt.
Puis est levez, aler s’en vuelt.
Il ne pout mie returner ;
la nes est ja en halte mer,
od lui s’en va delivrement.
Bon oré ot e suef vent,
n’i a niënt de sun repaire ;
mult est dolenz, ne set que faire.
At port was a single boat; Guigemar could make out a sail. It was a boat ready to take to sea, sealed within and without so that it was impossible to see the slightest joining. There was neither peg nor clamp that was not made from ebony–no material is more precious! The sail, all of silk, unfolded magnificently. The knight, taken aback, had never heard that a boat could take to land in the region. He moved towards it and alighted his horse to board the boat. He thought he might find whoever kept it, but there was no-one. In the middle of the boat was a bed with a frame and sides on which were engraved, in gold, the works of Solomon, mounted with cypress and white ivory. A silk fabric with gold brocade covered the bed. As for the drapes, I could not say, but for the pillows, I can tell you that it sufficed to place your head on it to be relieved of all your cares and woes. The sable fur covers were lined with Alexandrian purple dye. At the prow of the vessel two refined golden candelabras, the least precious of which was itself a treasure, held two lit candles. In wonder, Guigemar leans on the bed to rest himself as he is in pain. He gets up, wishing to leave, but it is impossible. Already the boat is on the high seas and glides to the open ocean with him inside. The weather is fine and the wind blows. Return is impossible. He is saddened, helpless.

“On the Sea and Coastal Ecologies:Early Modern Pasts and Uncertain Futures”: A SEA symposium at the UC Davis Bodega Marine Laboratory May 19-20, 2022

“Sea,” the second part of multi-year collaboration “Earth, Sea, Sky,” took place at the UC Davis Bodega Bay Marine Laboratory in May.  The project’s principal investigators are Dr. Tiffany Jo Werth (University of California, Davis), Dr. Bronwen Wilson (University of California, Los Angeles), Dr. Lyle Massey (University of California, Irvine) and international collaborators, Dr. Vin Nardizzi (University of British Columbia) and Dr. Tom White (University of Oxford).

By: Lyle Massey (University of California, Irvine) and Vin Nardizzi (University of British Columbia)

Two years of scholarly events that focused on early modern conceptions of the Sea (which also comprised the second part of a multi-year, international collaboration on the theme of “Earth, Sea, Sky”) culminated in a conference held on May 19th and 20th, 2022, at the UC Davis Coastal and Marine Sciences Institute at Bodega Marine Laboratory in Bodega Bay, California. Organized by a UCHRI working group whose principal investigators are Tiffany Jo Werth (UC Davis), Bronwen Wilson (UCLA), and Lyle Massey (UC Irvine),  “On the sea and coastal ecologies: early modern pasts and uncertain futures” combined paper presentations and workshops exploring and addressing themes such as:

  • Queering oceanic voyages 
  • Sounding ocean depths and charting sea surfaces
  • Untangling coastal ecologies
  • Exploring horizons and poles
  • Representing “blue” geographies (islands, currents, flows, littorals, dikes)
  • Tracing flows of racial capital
  • Navigating the interfaces of early modern Environmental Humanities and current research in the marine sciences.

The Marine Laboratory is situated near the disputed landing of Sir Francis Drake in 1579, and thus was an appropriate setting for a conference intended to challenge early modern coastal narratives and reinvigorate scholarship on sea/land interfaces in colonial history. Originally home to the Helapattai, Hime-takala, Ho-takala, Suwutenne, Tiwut-huya, and Tokau, and the Geluatamal tribes (Coastal Miwok and Southern Pomo), the Marine Lab is now a scientific institution dedicated to studying ocean and coastal ecologies.

The conference began with a tour of the facilities that included a visit to the salt water tanks holding marine life, and was followed by a lecture on the history of the Bay, and on the second day, a guided walk around the reserve on the bluffs overlooking the ocean, during which whales, swimming parallel to the shore, were seen spouting.

Direct confrontation with the shore environment set the stage for the conference’s multiple, engaged questions about embodied interactions with the sea’s materiality. The first session of the first day brought together three papers, Liam Lewis (French, Liverpool) “Medieval Deluge and Drownings: Ovid and the Bestiary,” Sara Sisun (Art History, UC Irvine) “Consider the Lobster: Ecocriticism and the Early Modern Crustacean” and Todd Borlik (English, Huddersfield) “Pericles, the Fisheries, and the Ecomaterial History of Purple.” All three explored different ways in which the sea is imagined as a fecund medium from which religious, sexual and commercial identities are extracted, while also being represented as tamed and controlled even as it signals chaos.  The afternoon session was comprised of papers presented by Alison Maas (English, UC Davis) “Coast as Crisis: Narratives, Ecologies, and Politics of the California Coast,” Rachel Kase (Art History, Boston University) “Rising Tides, Coastal Concerns: Seventeenth-Century Dutch Images of the Shoreline,” and Andrés Reséndez (History, UC Davis) “Opening the Pacific.” In this session, papers explored the way coasts mark instability, from a beached whale signifying the insecure relationship early modern Netherlanders had with their own coast, to the shifting political and intellectual grounds that underscore thinking about coasts in both present and historical terms, to changes in navigation and its effects on colonial enterprises when the patterns of gyres became understood. As the ensuing discussion made clear, the early modern period is often seen as a pre-industrial era retroactively viewed as a harmonious utopia. But the papers in this session belied this, exploring anxiety about events, crises, and the intertwined process of grappling with and looking away from environmental instability.

Dividing the two sessions were two workshops, one, on poetry, and guided by Liam Lewis (French, Liverpool) and Vin Nardizzi (English, UBC), on the theme of Eisteddfod (‘Sitting’): Queering Oceanic Voyages; and the other organized by Todd Borlik (English, Huddersfield) and Tiffany Jo Werth (English, UC Davis) on the theme of Coastal Ecologies and Underwater Worlds.

On the conference’s second day, the morning session’s presentations were by Mike Ziser (English, UC Davis) “Dead Seas: Reclamation and Exhumation in the Fenlands,” Sarah Mallory (Art History, Harvard) “Tender Lands: Depictions of Peat Digging in Seventeenth-Century Dutch Landscape,” and Hillary Eklund (English, Loyola University) “Rereading the Greedy Gulf.” In this session, presenters examined questions of environmental exploitation and extraction, from the reclamation of the Fens on the coast of England, to the effects of peat extraction and the drying of Dutch wetlands on visual conceptions of land and landscape, to literary conceptions of the Gulf as a greedy, swallowing entity.

The group watches a presentation about the history of the Marine Lab.

This was followed by a moderated discussion on Environmental Humanities and Contemporary Marine Science with discussants Rick Grosberg (Bodega Bay Marine Lab, UC Davis), John Largier (Director, Bodega Bay Marine Lab, UC Davis), M.A. Miller (UC Davis, Bilinski Fellow 2020), and Andrés Resendéz (History, UC Davis). Although the moderator, Steve Mentz (English, St. John’s University), was unable to attend in person due to flight complications, his questions prompted a lively conversation. The opening question, “How does the sea/shoreline shape your work,” prompted a rich reminiscence of encounters with and aversions to the oceanic. The next question explored “Disciplinary differences,” prompting presenters to consider how they understand the way that respective disciplines shaped how they did research and how they approached the sea. The discussion turned next to what might be learned from inter-disciplinary dialogue. The third question asked more directly about “studying the ocean,” and how the sea / shoreline featured in research, teaching, and writing. Finally, the roundtable concluded on a personal note, asking the discussants to reflect on what non-research related interactions with the sea were most meaningful.

The conference’s final session included presenters Elisa Antonietta Daniele (Art History, Marie Skłodowska-Curie Postdoctoral Fellow, UCLA) “Baroque Shores. Seawater’s Mimesis in Early 17th-Century Turin and the Transalpine Savoy Duchy,” Kirsten Schuhmacher (English, UC Davis) “Of things yet to come: Prolepsis in Nova Albion,” and Bronwen Wilson (Art History, UCLA) “Marco Boschini’s Island Navigations: Il Regno tutto di Candia (1651).” All three presentations explored instances  in which borders and limits have been imposed on land and ocean in an effort to contain their meaning while failing to solidify such constraints, from ephemeral enclosures meant to stand for the sea in theatrical performances, to Sir Francis Drake’s rhetorical reframing of North America as Nova Albion (a mirror image of England, connected by the oceans), to a Mediterranean island that is spatially inverted and imagined as a horizon projected through the sea rather than merely seen as a landmass in the water.

The conference ended with a discussion led by Vin Nardizzi and Lyle Massey.

Vin Nardizzi and Lyle Massey give closing remarks

In summation, the two days of rich scholarship and sustained engagement showed the inherent instability of so many narratives used to define oceans, seas and coasts. The coast in particular, which seems like a stable, material marker between land and sea, is more permeable than immediately apparent, dissolving into wetlands that are neither fully land nor sea, a constantly shifting and changing demarcation between elements, and a highly charged locus of exchange and transference.

Notes from the Coast: an Oecologies Reading Group

Ashley Sarpong, Yale University

On Earth Day, Friday, April 22, 2022, the Oecologies research cluster convened a final virtual reading group for the 2021-2022 year, led by Dr. Tiffany Werth, to discuss accounts of Sir Francis Drake’s 1579 landing in the San Francisco Bay area using an ecocritical lens. The discussion centered on three excerpts from the sixteenth-century narrative of Drake’s landing in the “fair and good bay” near San Francisco, and selections from two works of scholarship: Melissa Darby’s Thunder Go North: The Hunt for Sir Francis Drake’s Fair and Good Bay (University of Utah Press, 2019) and Matthew Morse Booker’s Down by the Bay: San Francisco’s History Between the Tides (University of California Press, 2013). Werth began the discussion with a return to Melody Jue’s “volumetrics,” which postulates thinking more firmly in terms of aquatic environs; it’s a term that has been a touchstone throughout our discussions of the “Sea” this year. In particular, Werth asked the group to consider: “What are methodologies through which we can theorize the coast aquatically and as a meeting place between sea and land?” Or, “how can we think about the coast as a place of exchange between earth and sea?”  

To begin, the group turned to Booker’s piece, a lyrical meditation on the bioregion of the San Francisco Bay, where indigenous Ohlone populations lived at “the bay’s edge” (23) and where millions of others live today.  Booker emphasizes the variability over time of both coasts and sea levels, which place the coast in a dynamic relationship with the sea and with human practices of urbanization and land reclamation. Moreover, the group considered how the coast can be understood in terms of infrastructures. As Booker explains, “the ports, the industrial districts and downtown skyscrapers, and the rail network and highways…maintains a powerful regional economy… [yet] [m]ost people rarely notice this infrastructure and fewer recognize that natural places are part of the productivity that society depends upon” (4). As such, the group considered how the coast functioned as a meeting place between the sea and the earth as well as a dialectic between the human and non-human world.

After this analysis of Booker’s piece, the group turned to the primary texts: descriptions Sir Francis Drake’s landing near the San Francisco Bay in “The famous voyage of Sir Francis Drake…about the whole globe of the earth, begun in the year of our Lord, 1577” as it appears in Hakluyt’s Principall Navigations (ed. Jack Beecher) and in the anthologies The Literature of Renaissance England ( eds. John Hollander and Frank Kermode) and The Norton Anthology of English Literature, 7th ed. (eds. George M. Logan, Stephen Greenblatt and Barbara K. Lewaslski). These different anthologies describe Drake’s arrival in a “fair and good bay, with good wind to enter the same.” The group analyzed how notions of value and skin color undergird this first encounter with the landscape. Additionally, the group examined Drake’s decision to name “this country Nova Albion, and that for two causes: the one in respect the white banks and cliffs which lie towards the sea; and the other, because it might have some affinity with our country in name, which sometimes was so called.” Drake’s decision to name the San Francisco Bay area a “new” England functions as an ecological analogy that links the “white cliffs” on the Pacific coast and England’s coast on the Strait of Dover.

Next the group turned to Melissa Darby’s text Thunder Go North. Of particular interest to the group were the ways in which the narrative(s) of Drake’s landing operated in an information blackout. Darby argues that “Drake’s land claim included a vast amount of territory he did not see, and therefore could not have legitimately claimed by the tenets of the time. Darby interrogates Drake’s claims by assessing the incomplete and concealed records of the voyage: “the latitudes he reached on the west coast of America were not the ones reported in the official record of the claim” (5). Strikingly, Darby compares the spiritual practices of indigenous peoples on the coasts of Oregon and southern Washington to the ethnographic descriptions of the indigenous peoples in the narrative of Drake’s landing, and she concludes that Drake likely landed in northern Oregon/southern Washington, not the San Francisco Bay. Placing the anthologized narratives in conversation with Darby’s attempts to correct the narrative, the group discussed the how Drake’s landing in “a fair and good bay” (of San Francisco or elsewhere) entangles the ecological, colonial, and ethnographic. This web, the group observed, featured prominently in the highly detailed description of Drake’s “set[ting] up a monument…of her Majesty’s right and title” to the land. This performance of land possession sparked a closing line of discussion: in the midst of a global reckoning with the legacies of colonial dispossession and the call to rename monuments to racist and colonial violences, should Drake’s landing still bear its name? Considering that Drake may not actually have landed in the place that bears his name (Drake’s Bay), what does it mean to rename something that never was?

By the end of the day’s discussion, it became clear that thinking about coasts meant thinking dialectically: the coast as a dialectic between ocean and land; the coast as a dialectic between the human and nonhuman; the coast as a dialectic between colonial exercises and indigenous life-ways. In this vital context of where sea meets land, this final conversation rounded out our discussions in November and March about premodern ecologies of “the Sea.”

“Cymbeline and the Anthropocene” at the Montana State University Black Box Theatre

Randall Martin, emeritus, University of New Brunswick

Friends and fellow Oecologists, Cymbeline in the Anthropocene is pleased to announce the culmination of our eco-Shakespeare in performance project. It is an international network of seven site-specific productions of Shakespeare’s tragi-comic romance, Cymbeline. Each production seeks to adapt the play’s range of stories, emotions, and terrains to contemporary environmental conditions in the hope of opening audiences’ imaginations to new biocentric and planetary horizons.  

Between July 18-20, our research team and theatre-makers from four continents will gather in Bozeman, Montana at the Montana State University Black Box Theatre for a hybrid symposium showcasing the work of seven ecodramatugically reinvented productions of Cymbeline

Most of the symposium sessions will be free and open to the public, both in-person and via live-streaming on the Cymbeline in the Anthropocene YouTube channel:

After the symposium, full-length video from the featured performances will remain freely available on our channel.

For the event poster and a full program, click here:

Whether you join us in Bozeman or virtually, we hope you enjoy this celebration of thee+ years of ecological research and theatrical innovation! 

Notes from the Clouds: an Oecologies Reading Group

Mikhaila Redovian, University of California, Davis

On Friday, March 11, the Oecologies research cluster convened a virtual reading group to discuss work on Clouds, bridging the Sea and Sky focal points of our current research project. Led by Dr. Vin Nardizzi, the discussion addressed three works, Alison Calhoun’s “What cloud machines tell us about early modern emotions” (Romance Quarterly, 2021), Lorraine Daston’s “Cloud Physiognomy” (Representations, 2016), and an excerpt from chapter 5 on “Clouds” in John Durham Peters’ The Marvelous Clouds: Toward a Philosophy of Elemental Media (University of Chicago Press, 2015). Nardizzi opened the discussion by returning to topics from the November 19th meeting, particularly Melody Jue’s term “volumetrics,” and by targeting the idea of “surface reading” from Daston’s chapter. Each of these three pieces led to a questioning of surfaces that don’t conform to human control, which acted as a common reference throughout the conversation.

Initially, the conversation delved into Calhoun’s piece and the theatrical spectacle of clouds produced by seventeenth-century cloud machines. As Calhoun notes, these machines contributed greatly to the affective reception of the drama of their day. Part of the cloud machines’ affective success involves the spontaneity with which they produced their effects. But the machines themselves occluded the labor-intensive process of creating the desired effect.  The fraught relationship between playwrights, cloud machine creators, and audiences provides a useful metaphor for considering how clouds alternately obscure and reveal complex processes, not just on stage but in everyday life: as Daston argues, people put hyperspecific names to objects that cannot be contained linguistically.

The ambiguities of clouds continued to animate the conversation. Do clouds obscure or condense knowledge? Do they block or do they protect humans from the face of God? When we look to the clouds, do we interpret shapes as they are observed, or do we project our thoughts onto them? Is there danger or clarity in naming or identifying clouds? The conversation shifted to The Tempest and Hamlet, whichprovide rich ground to contemplate these questions. Are we similar to Prospero, attempting to contain and control Ariel? How does identifying a cloud as a ghost change the implications of that object?  Does the power dynamic inherent in Hamlet and Polonius’ relationship restrict Polonius’ response?

The conversation concluded with discussion of the limitations of language in describing or accounting for clouds. Daston closely aligns her argument with that of the art historian Hubert Damisch, both of whom question if Linnean classifications animate or deflate clouds. These inquiries invite us to consider what acts we engage in when we attempt to name or categorize the inexpressible. Modern media such as Godfrey Reggio’s 1982 experimental, non-narrative and wordless film Koyaanisqatsi similarly asks what other mediums might be suitable for representing the ineffable.

While textual questions animated much of the discussion, theorizing clouds offers a vital connection between Sea readings and Sky readings.  “Clouds” offered an opportunity to continue conversations from November’s meeting while also moving toward the heavens.

Notes from “Ecologies and Economics: Premodern Extractions”

Chelsea Keane, University of California- Riverside

On Nov 5, 2021, the Oecologies Research Cluster hosted the Zoom webinar, “Ecologies and Economics: Premodern Extractions.” With opening and closing remarks by Oecologies co-directors Derrick Higginbotham (University of Hawai’i at Mānoa) and Kenna Olsen (Mount Royal University), and moderation by Kirsten Schuhmacher (UC Davis), the event featured work from Victorianist Elizabeth Carolyn Miller (UC Davis) and early modernists Debapriya Sarkar (UConn) and Phillip Usher (NYU).

Miller began the panel by discussing “Extraction Ecologies and the Literature of the Long Exhaustion.” The discussion drew from frameworks from her recent book of the same name, in which she uses realist novels from the industrial era to argue that extractivism between roughly 1830 and 1930 shaped literary form and genre “just as literary form and genre contributed to new ways of imagining an extractable Earth.” Miller’s century of study is well-suited for a discussion of extraction ecologies. As she explained, the 1830s saw the decisive shift to steam power, while the 1930s saw the advent of nuclear power; in the period between, Britain depended on extraction, with no viable alternatives, for its economic and military power. In that century, Britain became an extraction-based society that understood its use of environmental materials was unsustainable. Miller pointed out the uncanny similarity to our modern society, where past centuries of resource exhaustion finally threaten environmental collapse altogether. She left listeners with a haunting, lingering question about how we engage in lifestyles that “proceed while depleting the future.”

Debapriya Sarkar added to Miller’s conceptualization of literature as a critical archive for extractionism. To this formulation, Sarkar provided valuable critical care for figures whose labor is exploited by large-scale capitalistic extraction, which “elide[s] embodied, localized, extractive behaviors driving racialized practices in activities like mining.” In “Extraction, Ecology, and Early Modern Poetics,” Sarkar turned to the Cave of Mammon episode in Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene. There, Guyon enters a room where “an hundred raunges weren pight, and hundred fournaces all burning bright,” where “deformed creatures” and enslaved “feendes” labor to melt extracted gold. Sarkar followed the work of Ruben Espinosa, Kim Hall, and Geraldine Heng to argue that these words racially code, essentialize, and dehumanize their referents; the racial violence of the romance’s allegory is a slow violence often not read as violence at all. Sarkar urged her listeners to confront these “alchem[ies] of slavery and geology,” and her presentation highlighted the inextricability of racial/social justice and environmental justice as we look back at the 16th century and move forward into the 21st.

Like Sarkar, Phillip Usher asked us to locate the crux of ecological thinking not in large-scale disasters, but in, as Sarkar put it, “myriad quotidian disasters.” In his talk, “Exterranean: Extraction in the Humanist Anthropocene,” from his 2019 book of the same name, Usher’s carefully chosen titular concept gestures to the land/planet from which humans extract, the act of moving matter from this land, and the materiality of extracted matter itself. His title thus encapsulates another of his key points, which is the need to think from multiple perspectives at once, especially from those we usually overlook. Emissions, for example, result from extraction itself, not only from end-use of extracted materials. And early moderns, whose geological thought was not yet influenced by more modern awareness of resource formation, were nevertheless aware of resource exhaustion. If we begin to think ‘exterraneanly,’ Usher argues, we begin to connect extracted materials to the land they came from, and the planet of which this land is part. If we do this, we might more capaciously account for all human and non-human materials participating in the extractive cycle.

Moderator Kirsten Schuhmacher began the Q&A by picking up on the presenters’ attention toward multi-temporality, asking them to speak further on the relationship between temporality and extraction. Miller highlighted her useful framework of “heterotemporal historicism” as a way to unsettle restrictive theoretical fields and engage planetary, historical, and human time scales. Sarkar noted how early modern romance’s legacy of manipulating temporality might ask its audience to overlook certain ideologies and formations of the text. Usher invoked the Norman city of Caen to demonstrate the messy entanglements of geologic and human timelines. Tiffany Jo Werth asked presenters to speak to the orientation of humans to the geological underground, while Derrick Higginbotham inquired into the ways their studies intersect with Disability Studies and Queer Studies.

All the speakers highlighted the slow violence of extraction ecologies, both on the planet itself and on the humans most harmed by global capital and resulting ecological disasters. These slow violences require not only new temporal and methodological frameworks, but new practical methods as we move ethically and equitably through the 21st century. Kenna Olsen closed the event with the announcement of an upcoming Oecologies event in early February 2022 which, like this one, promises to lead us in just these directions.

Notes from “On the sea and coastal ecologies: early modern pasts and uncertain futures” Virtual Research Share

Kirsten Schuhmacher; University of California, Davis

On January 19th, 2021, the University of California Humanities Research Institute working group, “On the sea and coastal ecologies: early modern pasts and uncertain futures,” participated in a generative virtual research share. Led by Principal Investigator, Tiffany Jo Werth (UC Davis), the following members of the multicampus faculty working group gave presentations about their current research on early depictions of coastal ecologies: Andrés Reséndez (UC Davis), Lyle Massey (UC Irvine, Co-PI), Yve Chavez (UC Santa Cruz), Benjamin Madley (UCLA), Zirwat Chowdhury (UCLA), and Bronwen Wilson (UCLA, Co-PI).  To expand the premodern archive, presenters illustrated the need to work multimodally by focusing on literary texts, illustrations, and material artifacts.

A consistent thread in the research share was the attention to the Pacific Coast as an under-studied place of exchange. Many of the speakers thought through the movement between the “old” and “new” worlds from their current place within California. In this way, the speakers thought locally while also working in opposition to the better studied and understood early exchange networks on the Atlantic Coast. It was particularly enlightening when speakers brought together current issues on the Pacific Coast with past moments spanning more than two-hundred years. Benjamin Madley introduced a particularly pertinent example of this multi-temporality. His presentation looked at four different epidemics as the “invisible allies” of Europeans who colonized the western US between 1828 – 1844. His presentation drove home the critical importance of studying Pacific migrations of people and pathogens. 

The research share was unique not only given its focus on the Pacific Coast but also because of many presenters’ attention to non-European perspectives of the Pacific. For instance, Andrés Reséndez, as part of his Magellan Project, discussed ecological exchanges of goods such as the sweet potato, peanut, and corn, between China and the Americas, which ultimately helped the Chinese to expand their agriculture and use of silver. In addition, Zirwat Chowdhury examined one late 18th century English depiction of South Asian systems of writing and considered the implications of phonetics and their migration across the seas. 

As the research exchange came to a close, Tiffany Jo Werth reflected on some of the big concepts that spanned the presentations. I will draw attention to a couple here as particularly useful frameworks for thinking about and through the ocean and its coastal ecologies. For example, participants talked through Lyle Massey’s concept of “sea sense,” which she illuminated as a figurative as well as material concept of ocean as body. This discussion explored the porousness of coastal membranes and how their representation on maps illustrates the interpenetration of bodies of water and anatomy. Furthermore, participants created figurative maps that connected coastal materials, both manufactured and not, with humans and oceans alike. In one particular instance, Bronwen Wilson brought attention to an actual map and the use of the ship and compass on that map as a way to concretize the abstract through ornamentation. Additionally, many participants engaged with this porousness as a way to understand the exchange of goods, raw materials, and diseases as being part of the long history of the Pacific Coast. A material example of this occurred in Yve Chavez’s presentation of an 18th century Chumash basket in the British Museum. Her presentation posed questions about why such a basket was made and whether it was actually intended to be a “gift” for European explorers.

Another fascinating framework was born from a discussion on seasonal gyres and currents. By orienting themselves to these seasonal oceanic changes, the participants considered the ways that the ocean can and does exert its agency over the people that try to navigate it. Additionally, it allowed participants the chance to further illustrate the ways that the Pacific Coast is distinct given the unique particularities of the currents created by gyres and their impact on sailing routes as well as the season of travel. 

As an inaugural gathering of the multicampus faculty working group, the presentations provocatively introduced some of the issues that will receive attention in fall of 2021. There will be a symposium held at the UC Davis Coastal and Marine Sciences Institute at the Marine Lab in Bodega Bay, CA. This virtual research share is part of a series of events sponsored by the UCHRI in conjunction with the Earth, Sea, Sky research network. If you would like to learn more about the UCHRI working group, please visit: For all updates on future “Sea” events, please consult the dedicated landing page:

Finally, to help build our working bibliography on premodern coastal ecologies, please send relevant references to Laura Hutchingame:

%d bloggers like this: