The steel carbon-bird waits open-mouthed at the gate, and I can feel #ASLE2019 sliding away. Such a flood of imagination, energy, and collective good will spilling out all over the UC Davis campus this past week! I’ve been enjoying many different academic events shaped by Jeffrey Cohen’s deft hands for around a decade, and this year’s ASLE program, crafted collaboratively with Stacy Alaimo among many others, was gorgeous and overflowing.
I followed a series of bread-crumb trails across the green fields of Davis, including an encouragingly varied set of water-related sessions, a dazzling quartet of plenary lectures, and the double-session “Swimming into Paradise” that I co-convened with Lowell Duckert and a hearty crew of swimmer-thinkers. I also enjoyed Davis’s robust expanse of establishments named after burgers, brews, and academic institutions (“Burgers and Brew” “University of Beer” “Three Mile Brewing Co” “G Street Wunderbar” &c). It’s always hard to know how to organize one’s thoughts in the exhausted aftermath. How to swim after all the threads at once?
The question niggling at me all conference, and really for much longer than that has been the eco-dilemma of the places of small things in vast environs, the individual in human and more-than-human communities, and the impossible claims made by both sides of that duality. My talisman for this relationship, and the image with which I started and ended my own talk, is a human body immersed in salt water, but the competing pulls of local and larger human ties also framed the way I puzzled this split all weekend. Even now, drafting this blog-meditation while tucked into a window seat in a steel tube above the Rockies, I’m caught between (to repurpose the title of one of my favorite academic books) the one and the many. If we expand the circle to include nonhumans and agentic forces like winds and tides, how can we still find space for each solitary self? What does the one mean among so many many?
Like all the best questions, the choice between small and vast, one and many, shuttles between alternatives that never resolve. Solitude oppresses, as do even the most generous and supportive communal ties, such as those renewed this June amid ASLE-istas. By the time I ended up walking a serpentine path around 2:30 am Sat night after exhausting the wonders of the Wunderbar, my addled mind and tired body were reaching for home. It’s possible to crave two places at once. Or hopefully more than two.
That’s the sub-story beneath my post ASLE-musings: a dream of multiplicity, connection, exhaustion, and productive confusion in the Anthropocene.
— A diligent sub-sub-librarian might also note that plurality is not coincidentally also the burden of a little book of mine that, after some in-press delays, was published during this year’s ASLE: Break Up the Anthropocence, from U Minnesota Press’s Forerunners series. Read it online via their open-access Manifold platform or order the inexpensive paperback if you like! More on this project elsewhere, probably soon —
But first, ASLE’s plurality and excess —
Deep Waters (I-II) Two post-colonial sessions organized by Ned Schaumberg showed me on my first full conference morning how lively and varied blue humanities work is becoming across many discourses. I might have wanted to stand up a bit more for Allan Sekula as writer and film-maker, because his vision of historical transition and its human cost in the modern maritime world has been inspiring to me. But the great joys of these two sessions were learning new things, from the recent Australian novel Carpenteria by Alexis Wright to comparative perspectives from Indigenous cultures from Taiwan to North America. So many seas as yet unknown! I’m excited to learn more about this work.
Plenary I: Nnedi Okorafor’s Utopian Futures
Nnedi Okorafor’s blend of African-futurism and Marvell comics was mostly outside my ken before I heard her opening plenary, though I’ve now got her lively alien encounter novel Lagoon on my kindle app. I loved her description of writing Black Panther graphic novels, and I also valued her self-aware decision to choose optimism, to some extent in conscious contrast with the tragic vision of her mentor Octavia Davis, whose novel Wild Seed she is in the process of bringing to the small (mini-series) screen.
Swimming I: Immersion
The “Swimming into Paradise” panel that I co-organized with longtime swimming and thinking collaborator Lowell Duckert started with a panel on immersion that was as wet as even a water-glutton like me could want. We lost one presenter to the perils of CA freeways at the last minute (no serious injuries, except to an aging car), so I smuggled in Vanessa Daws’s short film Psychoswimography: Santa Barbara to give us a water’s eye view. All three presentations joined her in both hospitable and hostile waters: Lowell in the cold Atlantic surf during a Polar Plunge in his new home of Delaware, Marianna Dudley in a heroic crossing this past weekend in frigid San Francisco Bay from Alcatraz Island back to the shore, and Jeremy Gordon in the spring-fed waters of the Crystal River in central Florida, where floating with manatees he imagined slower and less directed forms of engagement. In every case, the physical encounter with water spurred thought. We imagine differently in touch with our world’s salt water skin.
Plenary II: Melissa Nelson’s Radical Kinship
My favorite phrase from Melissa Nelson’s deeply collegial plenary is “radical kinship,” though the feeling of listening to her was less radicalizing than welcoming. A professor and activist based in San Francisco State University, her talk wove together indigenous environmental teachings with practical community-building wisdom. The radical part of her stance was its inclusiveness: all manner of humans and nonhumans thinking and living together in respect and professed acknowledgment. I’m often a bit nervous in enveloping communities — perhaps defensively, I’m always thinking too critically, eager to poke and pick and quibble, in an academic’s way. But it was hard to find much to quibble about here. (Unless…in my own perverse inversion…I would quibble about not have enough to quibble about?)
The Oecologies Epic-Romance
I can’t run through all the sessions I saw, or the many others that I chatted about and was sad not to have been able to see in full — but I will talk briefly about the triple-threat panels on premodern eco-thinking sponsored by the Oecologies research group. I’m always drawn to the water works, especially a pair of Humber-centered papers, one by Tom White about 21c energy politics and another by Liza McIntosh about Lyly’s Galatea and early modern floods and fenlands. It was great to hear so much new work by young scholars making use of the premodern environmental humanities in innovative ways, including on early modern women writers. I was also glad to hear new work by Allan Mitchell, whose thinking about medieval mathematics and navigational instruments always amazes me; Tiffany Werth, whose ongoing work will I suspect come to re-frame our understanding of Spenser as eco-poet; and Vin Nardizzi, who regaled us with a strange and wonderful tale of archival sleuthing. (I was sorry to have missed Fran Dolan’s paper, which I am sure was brilliant and lively.) Oecologies is a great collective and resource for premodern ecological scholarship, which all of us are lucky to have.
Swimming II: Representation
The second half of “Swimming into Paradise” turned from physical to intellectual encounters. My St. John’s colleague Elizabeth Albert explored the wonderfully weird career of 19c French caricaturist J. J. Grandville, whose most arresting image was a version of Noah’s Ark which only the animals board, leaving the supposedly dominating humans on shore to die in the flood. Luis Rodriguez-Rincon described the sea-god Triton from Camoes’s Lusiads, the greatest maritime epic between Virgil and Moby-Dick, in ways that have me reconsidering the place of undersea depth in the poem. Chris Holmes was pressed for time, but his elaboration of oyster-thinking from Jack London’s Tales of the Fish Patrol to the Billion Oyster Project by way of Karl Steel’s writing on oystermorphism made a great conclusion to a session that connected oceanic experience to various forms of intellectual and social production. If we built the oyster-reefs in New York’s harbor in advance of the next big storm, will that be our twenty-first century sea epic?
Plenary III: Ursula Heise’s Multispecies Justice
Ursula Heise presented from her current project on urban ecology and multispecies justice in the context of urban biodiversity. Her tale of Mexican parrots who are endangered in their home range but thriving in Los Angeles poses a compelling riddle about “native” and “invasive” species. Surely what we want is more life and more kinds of life, even if some are out of place? I don’t want that to be a call to celebrate invasives such as the ocean’s jellyfish future — though it does remind me that one creature I heard mentioned very seldom these past few days were jellies. We gestured toward them briefly in the swimming sessions — but I tend to think that jellyfish are signature Anthropocene critters, oceanic analogues to Anna Tsing’s mushrooms or perhaps the rats that love New York and coyotes that thrive in LA. More jellyfish-thinking, please!
Swimming III: Histories of Feeling
In my two recaps of “Swimming into Paradise” I’ve skipped over my own talk so far, which bridges the “immersive” cluster of Lowell, Marianna, and Jeremy and the “representation” group of Elizabeth, Luis, and Chris. I more or less fit in that messy middle, because I was half writing about “feeling” the water in a deeply physical sense, starting off in dialogue with Charles Sprawson. (Marianna afterwards sent me this great BBC radio interview from earlier this year, interviewing Sprawson as he struggles with his cognitive decline.) In my second half I turned textual, working with the Elizabethan learn-to-swim manual of Everard Digby and thinking about what a “history of swimming” might entail.
Part of the (private) joke of my talk was my attempt to discuss the oceanic “feeling” with no reference to Freud or the psychological tradition that his legacy calls up — though in some ways Sprawson’s Romantic individualism, which he focalizes through figures such as Byron and Swineburne, might be hard to disentangle from Freudian depth psychology. But to get to the self’s ocean by way of the feel of salt water on skin — that’s what I’m after!
Plenary IV: Cherrie Moraga’s Native Country of the Heart
The closing plenary was writer Cherrie Moraga reading from her recent memoir, Native Country of the Heart. The sections she read deftly narrated the painful onset of her mother’s cognitive decline — it resonates interestingly with the BBC Sprawson interview that I listened to Sunday morning at SFO — and also with queer, indigenous, and Mexican-American identities. She spoke compellingly about her ambivalence toward Stanford, where she was writer in residence for over 20 years, and her hopes for Las Maestras Center, which she recently has created at UC Santa Barbara.
Paradise on Fire – in Water – Together
Some of the communities that will stay with me from Davis are the more fleeting gatherings the circulated outside the formal presentations. I remember many flashes of collecting and dispersing, including me sneaking silently away from the crowded G Street Wunderbar Thursday night because karaoke’s not my thing. (“But we have songs coming,” Lowell insisted. I didn’t stay.) I recall the bright California sunlight away from which a quartet of us edged ourselves while eating sandwiches on Saturday between sessions. My feet recall many long walks between the Segundo dorms, the conference center, and Davis’s small downtown. A mostly silent community formed during my hour’s negotiation with two swimmers I’ve never met and won’t see again, as we shared a lane in the Rec Pool at 7 am on Friday. Conversation flowed during lively dinner with two of my St John’s students, one present and one former, and several other eco-colleagues. Thursday night the generous staff at Yeti, a Nepalese place, left us to drink another round of Mustang beer and talk well after we’d inhaled plates of saag paneer and naan. I’ve not always been an automatic every-two-years ASLE-goer, but I’m getting there. The conference’s early modern presence is clearly growing, supported this year by a great contingent from UC Davis. But even more than old poems, what I love about this conference is its open generosity and imaginative warmth. I got to the point where I welcomed long lines for beer or ice cream as chances to chat with whoever was standing next to me in line.
And yet even in such happy company, I sometimes felt the niggling overwhelm rolling over me. Like many academics, I’m only intermittently social & enjoy spending lots of time alone reading and writing. Conferences are endless opportunities — there are lots of people I didn’t catch up with or meet for the first time, I missed the Whitman panel and the talk on dolphins blowing bubbles and many other things I would have loved to see — but after a few days & late nights I feel other rhythms calling.
The back and forth tug between joyful community and cherished solitude suggests that an oscillating model might help re-frame the “utopia or dystopia” choice Okorafor explored in the first plenary, or other stark binaries we frame and want to trouble in environmental thinking. What if we don’t have to choose just one? What if the nearest we can get to utopian living — ie, what if the living we really want — also contains dystopian frictions, bad coffee at the student dining hall, a hangover that doesn’t go away until after the first slow thousand yards in the sunlit pool?
In the new book I make this a slogan and hashtag: #pluralizetheAnthropocene!
As my late night connection to Hartford takes off from Atlanta, I’m thinking about ASLE as temporary autonomous zone (in Hakim Bey’s phrase) and also, like the ocean, a place you love partly because you can’t stay.
I’m still working on how best to situate and narrate the back-and-forthness of being an individual in communities, a creature in ecosystems, a passenger on a plane, a swimmer in a crowded pool or an inhabited ocean. But I’m grateful to be thinking these things with the goodwill and good cheer of ASLE!