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. 

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.

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.

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.

The Galatea Project: A Year in Review

Oecologies is proud to announce the launching of its new blog series. This series is dedicated to reviewing recent events and projects, as well as promoting and celebrating the work of our members and collaborators. Please stay tuned for future posts!  

Karol Pasciano, University of British Columbia

The sun doth beat upon the plain fields; wherefore let us sit down, Galatea, under this fair oak, by whose broad leaves being defended from the warm beams we may enjoy the fresh air, which softly breathes from the Humber floods” (Lyly I.i.1-5).[1]

Thus opens Galatea, a comedy written by John Lyly and performed by the Children of St. Paul’s before Queen Elizabeth I “at Green-wiche, on Newyeeres day at Night” in 1588. Revolving around the threat of an imminent environmental crisis, the drama negotiates the ecological boundaries that bridge Lincolnshire’s green woodlands and the Humber estuary. In its opening act, the play details a narrative of supernatural deluge. Enraged by the destruction of his temple by Danes, the god Neptune is said to have once “caused the seas to break their bounds […] and to swell far above their reach,” prompting one to “see ships sail where sheep fed, anchors cast where ploughs go, fishermen throw their nets where husbandman sow their corn, and fishes throw their scales where fowls do breed their quills” (I.i.30-1; 33-6). In exchange for the receding of the tides, the deity demands that, every five years, the most beautiful virgin in the village be bound to the “fair oak” tree and offered as a peace token to the sea monster, Agar. It is in order to escape such a dreadful fate that two maidens, Galatea and Phillida, are disguised as boys and ordered to hide in the forest by their respective fathers. The pair’s eventual meeting gives rise to an amusing comedy of errors and a queer romance that ultimately culminates in a (potential) trans* metamorphosis.

Galatea’s first quarto, 1592

A treat for early modern scholars working with ecocriticism, conversions, and queer ecologies, the play has precipitated a wave – but thankfully no destructive floods! – in recent scholarship about its blue and green environs, thematic intersections with climate change, and human/nonhuman alliances. It was precisely from the desire to explore such aspects in Lyly’s work that Dr. Patricia Badir (UBC), a founding collaborator of Oecologies, initiated the Galatea Project alongside Dr. Paul Budra (SFU) and Katrina Dunn (University of Manitoba). Badir notes that the project’s initial investigation was dedicated to examining the intertextual parallels and ecological conversions involved in Lyly’s uptake of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, particularly of the stories of “Iphis and Ianthe” and “Acis and Galatea” (both of which served as direct source materials for Galatea). The investigation’s main objectives included probing the different significations behind Lyly’s transformation of Ovidian landscapes into Lincolnshire’s countryside,[2] as well as discerning how the play’s eros is profoundly linked to its oikos – that is, Lincolnshire’s environmental precarity and vulnerability. For Badir, thinking about European premodern environments from “here” and “now” likewise involved recognizing resonances between Lyly’s setting and Vancouver’s own waterscapes. Linking Lincolnshire’s tides to the Pacific Northwest’s coastal flows, the project has been continually engaged in “rais[ing] questions relevant to Vancouverites (likewise living at the edge of a forest along the banks of an estuary) while also opening itself to critical paradigms that help us understand the ways in which particular kinds of environments and behaviors become ‘naturalized’ over time.”[3]

Most recently, the project has been awarded a grant by UBC’s Community-University Engagement Support (CUES) Fund and has partnered with professional theatre company Bard on the Beach to bring Galatea to life on stage. In November 2018, academics, theatre professionals, and graduate students participated in a week-long workshop dedicated to analyzing the play’s multiple ecological and metamorphic transformations, as well as its polychronic and multitemporal depictions of N/nature. Bard on the Beach director Dean Paul Gibson observes how the play is “most full of possibilities,” especially with regards to how one might imagine and interpret Lincolnshire’s environs. When asked about how he would envision a full local production of Lyly’s work, Gibson states that “our natural setting would certainly lend to the story-telling of this play. Many [people] have a deep and mysterious connection with this land. Of course, the indigenous peoples of this land could teach us much about working with the elements and [their] powers.”[4] The workshop concluded with a public staged reading performance, directed by Gibson, on the Goldcorp Stage at the BMO Theatre Centre on November 10. Tickets were offered to the UBC, SFU, and Bard on the Beach communities on an RSVP basis, and, to everyone’s delight, the event was sold out within hours of its announcement online. The performance was very well received by the audience, and the Q&A period which followed it demonstrated how the local community was just as interested in the play’s enticing themes as its project members. 

The success of the November performance inspired the project to coordinate another set of reading performances with Bard on the Beach actors at the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences, which took place at UBC over the first week of June 2019. These subsequent performances were directed by Katrina Dunn and staged in the Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Amphitheatre, an open-air area carved on a hill and encompassed by a verdant grassplot, stone banks, and a murky, vegetation-filled, artificial pond, whose natural vibrancy reverberated the play’s central localizing line, “You are now in Lincolnshire” (I.iv.14). Along with the green stage, the impromptu – and quite apropos – addition of bird chirps and bullfrog croaks to the performance soundscape reinforced the environment’s role in the narrative; like the characters declaiming Lyly’s poetic verses, it too had a “voice” in the story. Dunn comments that the new space has also made it possible to further explore different types of blocking arrangements in order to enhance the physicality of the actors’ gestures and movements. She likewise emphasizes her directing focus on “making the imaginary world of the play visible” for both actors and audience. For Dunn, “crafting this invisible world” effectively is imperative to the action of the play, which is set in motion precisely by environmental forces.[5]


In addition to the staged performances, the project also marked its presence at Congress with a roundtable panel, hosted by the Canadian Society for Renaissance Studies/Société canadienne d’études de la Renaissance and the Canadian Association for Theatre Research/L’Association canadienne de la recherche théâtrale. Featuring presentations by Badir, Budra, Dunn, and UBC students Jade Standing (PhD English), Lea Anderson (BA English Honours), and Jamie Harper (BA English Honours), the panel engaged a variety of captivating topics, such as Lyly’s euphuistic style, Lincolnshire’s “coastal squeeze” processes, Galatea and Phillida’s queer and trans* dynamics, pedagogical approaches to the play, and the challenges in staging its natural and supernatural elements.   

Oecologies Roundtable at the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences, 2019.

As for future plans and events, Budra has announced that the next play to be taken up by the project is Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy. Similar to Galatea, this contemporary play also presents alluring green spaces and a tree as a central prop – elements that shall certainly promote further ecocritical discussions for the project. Kyd’s play will be investigated in a similar workshop setting with Bard on the Beach practitioners, which is expected to take place in the Fall of 2019. 

Galatea: A Staged Reading

Directors: Dean Paul Gibson (BMO Theatre) / Katrina Dunn (Congress)

Dramaturge: Katrina Dunn

Stage Manager: Stephen Courtenay (BMO Theatre) / Lois Dawson (Congress)

Academic Advisors: Patricia Badir and Paul Budra

Special Thanks: Ryan Brown, UBC Community Engagement, Claire Sakaki, Rhea Shroff, Ava Forsyth, Heather Kennedy, Tiffany Werth, and Vin Nardizzi.


[1]. All citations of the play text are from Leah Scragg’s edition (Manchester University Press, 2012). 

[2]. For more on this, see Badir’s chapter, “Coastal Squeeze: Environmental Metamorphosis and Lyly’s Lincolnshire,” in Ovidian Transversions: ‘Iphis and Ianthe’, 1300-1650, eds. Valerie Traub, Patricia Badir, and Peggy McCracken (Edinburgh University Press, 2019). 

[3]. For more on this, see the Galatea Project’s main webpage (https://patriciabadir.com/the-galatea-project/).

[4]. Personal correspondence, December 2018.

[5]. “The Galatea Project: An Oecologies Roundtable,” June 3 2019, Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences 2019 (Sponsored by the Canadian Society for Renaissance Studies/Société canadienne d’études de la Renaissance and Canadian Association for Theatre Research/L’Association canadienne de la recherche théâtrale).  

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