I’ll gather together here my three overflowing posts in response to my trip to Australia in Oct 2019, as a guest of the History of Emotions Centre and U. New England in Armidale, and then the Sydney Environment Institute at the University of Sydney.
On my last day in rural northern New South Wales, while I was bush-walking down a dusty path scattered with anthills in the slightly smoke-flavored air, I walked by a red-bellied blacksnake curled along the side of the path. I was the second walker in our group, which put me in the at-risk position: the first walker wakes the snake, the second gets him agitated. But I passed in silent oblivion, thinking about bush fires and the Myall Creek Massacre and the brilliant papers and panels at the University of New England conference on “Compassion: a Timely Feeling,” which had take place over the previous two days. Was the invisible-to-me red-belly an allegory? A symbol of something? Just, as we say, another snake in the grass?
It’s hard to parse what the snake means, but I had a great whirlwind visit to Armidale.
I came straight from the plane to the first keynote, a rich exploration of the intellectual genealogy of compassion in Britain from the late Middle Ages through the eighteenth-century. Katie Barclay, who teaches at the University of Adelaide in South Australia but whose vowels reveal her Scottish heritage, spoke about “neighborly love” before and during the Enlightenment, with special attention to what she calls “emotion management” as a key task for individuals and social bodies. She’s a longtime employee of the “History of Emotions” Centre of Excellence in Australia, and the depth of her knowledge and thinking on this important subject was on display.
I can’t gather together all of the nine panels and 3 keynotes, especially not while wanting also to talk also about our bus tour of the Australian bush on Saturday. So my blog-recap will skate between talks and tours, moving now from Katie’s deep archival research to first stop on our drive, the living archive of a Chinese emporium in Tingha, NSW, which has been converted into a museum after the family closed the business. The shop thrived during the tin boom in the nineteenth century. When the family finally abandoned the shop in the 1990s, the town had not quite ghosted but was just a whisp of its boom. The emporium turned museum was filled with old and new items, including whatever goods had not sold in the last years of operation still on their shelves. It was a slightly eerie look at social change and the human history of extraction in Australia.
In between Th afternoon and Friday at the conference, we heard a dazzling array of transdisciplinary responses to compassion, from David Holmes’s description of his Centre’s work in Climate Change Communication to Renee Mickelburgh’s “everyday environmentalism” of garden narratives, Deb Anderson on the “wet tropics” of rural Queensland, and other papers on the speculative reach of cli fi utopias, surfing and “care of the soul,” and a series of talks about climate activism, much of which described Australian contexts that were largely new to me.
A highlight of our long drive into the bush on Saturday was visiting the Myall Creek Massacre memorial. We walked a short self-guided loop with plaques explaining the Aboriginal heritage of the site as well as the massacre of 1838. The Myall Creek event was just one point in the wave of anti-indigenous criminal violence that accompanied the colonial settlement of Australia (as well as, of course, the settlement of the Americas). It’s a powerful feeling to be a descendent of colonizers standing in front of a memorial that protests the crimes of white Europeans. I could not help but think that the bush flies, dive-bombing incessantly inside my sunglasses as I walked along the path, were somehow spirits of the land, reminding me of my own alien-ness and complicity. I’m glad to have seen this place, and to have honored, in the resonant phrase that I heard at almost every talk in Australia, “Elders past, present, and emerging.”
My own talk on Friday morning at UNE was about (what else?) the oceanic feeling. I offered basically two ideas. First, I suggested that compassion, much as we love it, can also be an oppressive social demand; my example was one of English lit’s most horrid mother-monsters, Mrs Bennett from Pride and Prejudice. “Have you no compassion on my nerves?” she bullies her husband in the first chapter. Second, I hazarded the idea that re-routing compassion in nonhuman and oceanic directions might open up new ways to live amongst rising Anthropocene seas. I had a variety of examples for this second move, from Allan Sekula to Chris Connery to Luce Irigary, but the jumping-off image was Don Quixote looking at the ocean for the first time, upon arriving in Barcelona late in Part II. Compassion, it seems, makes me think of novels.
The pregame breakfast before the bush tour on Saturday was Jennifer Mae Hamilton’s “Community Weathering Station,” a pop-up water activism and theorizing site that she’s been curating in dialogue with the painful drought around Armindale. She’s asking everyone, including herself, to reflect on how this dry community feels about water, and about the town’s dependence on the weather. It’s a great, engaging, humanizing project that I hope to hear more about. I’ve known Jen’s brilliant work for several years, and it was a treat to meet her in person at last.
Delia Falconer’s closing plenary at the conference took up the question she also addressed in a lovely essay, “Signs and Wonders,” in the Sydney Review of Books. She explored how creative writers might be able to respond to our newly dynamic climate. In the talk she responded to James Wood’s hand-wringing about fiction writers’ supposedly failed responses to 9/11. I very much agree with where she ended up — that the fictional imagination needs to confront environmental strangeness both directly and obliquely, and that stories can teach us things we don’t know that we need to know.
The shock of Armidale’s dry heat struck me all the more palpably when I arrived on Sunday to Sydney’s humidity and abundant swimming locations. Rural New South Wales isn’t obviously amenable to my water-research in the same way that Sydney is. But I’m very pleased to have had the opportunity to see it for myself and not be confined only to urban Australia.
Thanks to Diana Barnes for the invitation, and everyone in Armidale for their hospitality!
With apologies to San Diego and Miami, and not having been to Rio or Cape Town, I am wondering — is it possible that any city in the world is a better swimming city than Sydney?
Here’s my list of my swims during my week in the city at the end of October, with pictures from most of the spots —
Sunday afternoon: Prince Alfred Park Pool. I swam in two of the three 50m outdoor public pools in the heart of the city, missing only the pool located in the Royal Botanic Gardens near Circular Quay. These pools were large and sunny, in use but not overcrowded, the water cool but not cold. My hotel was a 10 min walk to Prince Albert Pool and maybe 5 min to Victoria Park Pool. It’s the sort of local convenience I could get used to! I swam first in Victoria Park around 3 pm on Sunday, after flying down from Armidale at noon.
Monday morning: Victoria Park Pool. My first morning in Sydney I leveraged residual jet lag to get to the pool by 7 am and churn out 1500m under early morning slant light. The pool was a bit crowded, but inviting. Like my fellow swimmers, I got through my morning workout pretty fast to get on with the day.
Monday afternoon: Clovelly Inlet. After a lovely and wine-filled lunch with my hosts at the Sydney Environment Instittue, I took off in the afternoon for the Eastern suburbs, the Bondi-to-Coogee cliff walk, and a ghostly encounter with my twenty-two year old self, who had lived up the hill from Coogee for three-plus months at the end of 1989 and into 1990. The cliff walk is stunning, with glittering rock pools, and subtle gradations of brown in the sandstone. During the first half of the walk, we snaked through the public art displayed by the Sculpture by the Sea exhibition. But I was there to see and to swim, and on Killian’s advice we spent a while in Clovelly Inlet, a narrow, almost pool-shaped ocean inlet, bounded by the roar of surf at one end and a narrow beach on the other. We saw a wide assortment of fish in the calm waters. Highlights included a very not-shy blue groper, named “Bluey” in the Wild Swimming guidebook, and a sting ray with sand on its back. I also enjoyed swimming right up into the edge of the surf, into washing-machine-like conditions, and then letting the swell ease my back to the calm center.
Monday afternoon: Coogee Beach. At the end of the cliff walk was the crescent-shaped bay of Coogee Beach, where I’d last swum on Christmas Day 1989, drinking green and red cans of Victoria Bitter. I remember the surf being a little bigger back then, but the water felt just the same.
Tuesday morning: In advance of my big talk at 4 pm, I made sure to get a good 7 am swim at the Victoria Park Pool.
Tuesday mid-day: Killing some time before my public lecture, I wandered around the Circular Quay and gawked at the Opera House in the morning. Then I took a ferry to Watson’s Bay, near the South Headland. There I ate fish & chips and swam at The Baths, a netted swimming area in the oldest fishing village in Sydney.
Wed morning: It was a full day of Workshopping on Wednesday, so no time but 7 am for swimming. I did get my 1500m in at my now-habitual Victoria Park Pool.
Th morning: I had expected to go back to Victoria Park on my last day in town, but Astrida Neimanis helped gather together a group excursion to Karloo Pool, in the Royal National Park. (The second-oldest National Park in the world, after Yellowstone, I was told.) We met up on the 6 am train from downtwon and made it out to Heathcote Station a little after 7. We tramped down a steep trail through gum tree forest to the pool, where we took a refreshing 20 min dip in clear, cool water. Then we busted back up by way of a sweaty hike that was just in time to get everyone to their academic jobs that morning. And also time to get me on time to go catch the ferry across the harbor to Manly, for the swimming trifecta that ended my week.
Th mid-day: We had planned to snorkel in the ocean marine reserve in Manly, on the northeast corner of the Harbor, but the guy who I rented my mask and gear from said with the wind the way it was, the visibility would be better in the harbor at Fairlight Beach. We took his advice. The kelp beds were full of fish, tiny bits of iridescent coral, and more sea urchins than I’ve ever seen anywhere. The highlight of the swim — which I describe in detail in my Oceanic Sydney post — was an encounter with a giant Australian cuttlefish, one of the strangest and most intriguing critters I’ve seen in the sea. I won’t soon forget him!
Th mid-afternoon: Josh had to catch a ferry back to teach in the afternoon, so I tramped around to the ocean side and the Shelly Beach Marine Reserve on my own. The north wind had churned up the sand a bit, but I did see lots of fish above the kelp bed.
Th late afternoon: My last dip of the trip was in the surf of Manly Beach, where, tired as I was, I frolicked a bit with the kids on floatie toys and tried to keep my distance from the board surfers. It’s a gorgeous beach, and reminds of an outsized version of my home waters down at the Jersey Shore. Manly has become more touristic over the decades since I’ve last been there — it sported the only Starbucks I saw on my entire trip, though Sydney is full of fantastic coffee bars — but it’s a place I’d love to bring my family.
That’s eleven swims in five days, which is pretty good considering that I also fit in two professional events, meals with many of my hosts, drinks and coffee with others, and an excursion to the Sydney Fish Market. No museums, alas. Next time?
I’m not yet halfway back across the Pacific as I draft this post, and I’m already starting to scheme about future trips.
On the afternoon of my last day in Sydney, I was snorkeling in the Harbor near Fairlight Beach in Manly, when something caught my eye. It was below me in the water, nearly two feet long, swimming above the kelp bed. It didn’t move like any fish I’d ever seen. It had no fins, and I could not see any tentacles. It moved evenly through the water. The outside fringe of its baguette-shaped body subtly undulated and propelled itself forward, with a slightly spooky Halloween-appropriate wriggle. As I followed above it, the creature kept a calm pace just ahead of me. Then it slowed to a stop, but rather than making a turn with its head, it backed itself away to the left. Instead of flipping its body, it simply re-oriented itself so that its old tail was now its head. It swam off after that, and in not too long lost itself in the kelp. It was the giant Australian cuttlefish, a strange creature unlike anything I’ve ever seen before in the sea.
Flying home now above the South Pacific, I’m thinking about the cuttlefish. He didn’t put on the color-changing display that these amazing beasties sometimes perform, but his alien swimming entranced me. The soft, fluid movements of the creature’s body, its eerie floating pace, and its K-turn style of redirection — these were things I’ve never seen before in a lifetime of immersion. Giant cuttlefish are shy, retiring critters; my host, who’s been snorkeling in and beyond Sydney all his life, had never seen one before. But there the creature was, in the middle of the afternoon, showing itself to su as if wanting to remind me of how little I know, really, about the waters that I love. I followed the creature for a few timeless minutes, before he shook me off.
The cuttlefish swims in my mind’s eye now as emblem of my trip to Australia, which showed me many things I’ve not seen before and reminded me of how much I still want to learn. My week in Sydney as a guest of the Sydney Environment Institute swims into the past under the sign of the cuttlefish. What a flood it was! I’ll blog separately about the Armidale / University of New England part of the trip, and also post the salty details of my swim diary for the past week for anyone interested — but right now I want to get at least some glowing embers of the Sydney trip corralled into words.
The main event was a public lecture on Tuesday night at (what everyone calls) Sydney Uni, “Swimming into the Blue Humanities.” (Audio available via the link.) The talk brought together a few strains of what I’ve been calling “swimmer poetics” for a little while. My main effort was to combine an analysis of Everard Digby’s 1587 De arte natandi, the first how-to-swim manual published in England, with a half-dozen contemporary swim-writer-theorists, from the blazing individualism of Charles Sprawson’s Haunts of the Black Masseur to the subtler touches of Lynne Shapton and Philip Hoare, the heroic endurance of Lynne Cox, and the communal artistry of Vanessa Daws. I’m not sure I realized it until the moment I was delivering the talk, but the undertext of my talk traced a path from Sprawson’s mad solitude, painfully underscored by his current illness and dementia, into the communal practices exemplified by Vanessa Daw’s Psychoswimography in Santa Barbara. To make swimming into an Anthropocene meditation requires, I think, this movement beyond the self in solitary sensory deprivation to a collaboration of fellow swimmers and thinkers in our era of rising seas.
That’s the insight I arrived at while giving the talk, but the audience and workshop participants gave me much more.
A lively set of questions that evening, as well as the stunning water-acoustics of the group Baptism at the wine reception after, pushed me toward new watery ideas. I loved the comments-not-questions reminiscences about the legendary local swimming star Murray Rose, who I’d quoted (via Sprawson) in the paper and who a member of the audience had seen in a long distance race in Bondi. Other helpful questioners pushed on the “poetics” part of my formulation ,and wondered whether there was a difference between “swimming” (and its laboring, mobile poetics) as opposed to “floating” (which might produce a speculative ontology instead). I got great, engaging questions from Astrida Neimanis, who would take me on a splendid fresh-water adventure the next morning at Karloo Pools, and from Killian Quigley and Liam Semler, who had walked the Bondi-Coogee path with me the day before, including staring into the fishy eye of a blue groper underwater in Clovelly Inlet and frolicking in the surf at Coogee. I felt lucky to be there, and to have so many people giving me the gift of their critical attention.
The overflow continued the next day at the “Ocean Thinking Workshop,” hosted again by SEI. They gave me an hour to show some images of my favorite toxic or inviting beaches from New York to California to Liverpool, and to speculate about what it might mean to consider beaches as arguments, ways of bringing humans and oceans together. That part was fun, but the collection of interdisciplinary topics was just amazing. Before I forget all the best bits —
- Felicity Picken on “disorganized thinking” via Latour and the oceans
- Mariko Smith on the bark canoes and water culture of the indigenous peoples of New South Wales
- Kate Fullagar and Tanya Evans on the history of Sydney’s Split Swimming Club
- Astrida Neimanis on her new book, “the feeling of water,” including a generous and critical reconsideration of Adrienne Rich’s “Diving into the Wreck” that has re-oriented that great poem for me
- Iain McCalman, who was a generous and imaginative presence all week, on the shared meanings of “pleasure” in watery contexts, including the ways in which “pleasure tourism” might both damage and also possibly preserve the Great Barrier Reef
- Ann Elias on “how a man standing in water looks to a fish,” by way of science and surrealism in the 1910s
- Marine biologists Will Figueria and Brigette Somer on complexity in 3D reef modeling and how climate change is migrating corals beyond the tropics
- Josh Wodak (later my cuttlefish snorkeling companion) on volcanos and “no analogue states”
- Claire Britton on Sydney’s Cooks River, which reminds me a bit of my beloved Newtown Creek in Brooklyn
- Anita Calloway on the faeries at the bottom of Sydney Harbor
- Killian Quigley on “harbor poetics” and the bones that may lie beneath the Brooklyn Bridge
- Lea Vuong on the hidden second river of Paris, La Bievre,
- Robyn Backen closed us out with a tour de force of watery installations, from Sydney to Cologne among other places
The long, exhilarating, exhausting day took us from the pleasures of swimming to the post-industrial melancholy of fouled urban rivers and what we might call the “poetics of pollution.” I was dazzled by the methods on display, from marine biology to anthropology, art history, and heritage studies as well as my more familiar home-discourses of literature and history. Other attendees also spoke about projects in shipwreck archeology and surf studies. I left feeling that the blue humanities are in very good hands and that I’ll never be able to keep track of all the directions we’ll go. Which is the best thing about any intellectual upwelling!
I let slip at some point during the question periods that I’m in the market for a successor discourse to the sublime, a way to interpret nonhuman vastness and power that does not require the egoistic ju-jitsu we know from Romanticism. We talked about that for a while, but I’m not sure anyone was ready to nominate a discourse — unless, perhaps, it might emerge in dialogue with Glissant’s post-colonial idea of Relation.
What do I take home with me, besides flygskam and a faint hope that the carbon offsets I bought before I left home will support some mitigating projects? I’m hoping for a blue humanities that imitates the cuttlefish: using all the edges of our bodies to propel ourselves forward in one direction, then suddenly re-directing so that what appeared in front is now to one side. There’s so much still to be discovered!
The absurd abundance of Sydney’s waters — for more on which see my swim-diary post — came home again to me in my last hours in the land of Oz. I walked down King Street in Newtown, enjoying the Halloween festive vibe in a hipster neighborhood. I managed to pick up a copy of Delia Falconer’s book Sydney, at the last of four bookstores I tried while I was in town. (Delia had been another speaker in the Armindale part of my trip, and she helpfully guided me onto the Sydney rail system so I wasn’t stuck with cabs.) I ended up meeting a friend from my Shakespeare circles, who was himself meeting a mate from Sydney — who it turned out is a distinguished scholar of mermaids, oysters, New York harbor, and many other things I love very much. He’d not known about any of my events in Sydney, and I did not until last night know about his awesome open-access island studies journal Shima. We chattered about oceans & islands & mer-critters & Queequeg & many other things besides. Does every Victorian pub in Sydney come with its own dazzling blue humanities scholars?
That’s a question I may not be able to answer soon. This latest academic adventure wasn’t my first trip to Sydney, but it was the first since I arrived there in 1989, fresh from working to clean up the Exxon Valdez’s oil from Alaskan beaches and powerfully motivated to defer adulthood’s responsibilities. Walking through Sydney this week, I returned to many of the haunts of my younger self’s four-month stay, especially the cotton-candy surf of Coogee and Manly beaches, the dazzling sunlight on the Opera House, and the ferries that sketch their wake-lines across the vast intimacy of the Harbor. I kept feeling as if the young man I had once been was there alongside me on this trip, just a bit out of sight or splashing underwater, wondering what his future might be like.
What would that twenty-two year old make of me returning to Sydney in 2019, the father of teenagers, one of whom has started college this fall, working as a professor (I knew no professors as a child), thinking and writing about the feeling of ocean on skin?
At least the last of those things would feel familiar to him, I think. In some ways I’ve had a long road over the past three decades. But in others, I’m where I’ve always been.
What would it feel like to rule the world? To believe that your own ordinary embodied body lay atop of history’s moving current, guiding the flow of revolution, so that everything that happens, happens to you, because of you, through you, in relation to you? What if you believed you were the apex of every pyramid?
It can’t be easy to keep the vast swirl of history flattened inside one single faraway gaze, one commanding posture, and one pair of slightly inward-turned boots. Maury Sterling’s performance of Stalin, on stage for the next month in the gorgeous Cherry Lane Theatre in the West Village, wears glacial white and speaks about the revolution, as Max Faugno’s Chorus tells us, as a “sincere intellectual.” What struck me most forcefully from this performance of one of the last century’s greatest monsters was Stalin’s calm solidity, his eerie stability in speech and in silence. No extra movement from the Man of Steel. In Murry Mednick‘s play about the Communist dictator and the revolutionary poet Mayakovsky, who Stalin never met but whose reputation received the dictator’s posthumous benediction, Stalin commands everyone — except his wife Nadya, played with coiled-spring energy by Jennifer Cannon, who eludes him finally through suicide.
The play features twinned suicides, of Nadya in 1932 and of Mayakovsky in 1930, which loosely connect the two plots of political and poetic revolution. The play bounces the paired narratives off each other, contrasting Stalin’s mastery with Mayakovsky’s somewhat floppy enthusiasm, his declamatory poetry, and his “bad teeth.”
What does the revolutionary poet who died young say to the dictator who bent Eurasia to his will? Mednick’s play makes explicit connections between the fervor of revolutionary Russia and his own ferment in the American 1960s, when he collaborated with Sam Shepherd and Ed Harris. I also wondered about the resonance of the Brik family, who embraced Mayakovsky and his revolution, but whose wiser sister Elsa, played with precise energy by Alexis Sterling, left the Soviet Union for a distinguished literary career in France, where she was also part of the Resistance.
Mayakovsky and Stalin is complex, verbally dense theater. For my fellow Shakespeareans, I caught echoes of the second half of Macbeth in the fractured post-triumph marriage of Stalin and Nadya. I also enjoyed the explicit Lear allusions in the language of “nothing” and in Mayakovsky’s fart jokes. “Blow, winds,” &c.
I spend a decent amount of my time sitting in the front row of intense, demanding plays like this one. In fact, a month ago I was in almost the same seat for Keith Hamilton Cobb’s brilliant American Moor, also at Cherry Lane. Mayakovsky and Stalin wasn’t my usual Shakespeare or Shakespeare-adjacent fare, though I’d gotten a revolutionary Soviet art warm-up through Peter Brook’s Why? at Tfana, which also touched on Maykovsky. But for me the added strangeness and wonder of this show was that two of the eight actors, Maury and Alexis Sterling, are my brother- and sister-in-law. Instead of flying solo to the play as I often do, I sat last Saturday on opening night surrounded by family. A noisy party of grandparents, cousins, and in-laws from both coasts of America and both sides of the Atlantic gathered together after the show for Georgian food (not the American Georgia but the European nation in which Stalin was born) down the street.
It’s a treat to be part of a family that makes great art, and great gatherings. I’m going to go back before the run is over on Nov 10 — and you should too!
[Cross-posted from the U MN Press blog]
A few weeks ago in late July, a tropical rainstorm cascaded onto my home in Connecticut. During high summer in the northeastern United States, violent thunderstorms often roll through after steamy afternoons. But we weren’t prepared for the speed and volume of water that fell in a few short hours during the evening of July 22, 2019. After we spotted rising water in the basement, spreading into my teenage son’s underground lair, we frantically filled 32-gallon garbage cans and hauled them up the hill from the flooded garage. We weren’t quite successful in keeping all the water out of his room – but we did save the Xbox, not to mention his bed.
Welcome, I didn’t say to him as we each strained to pull more than one hundred pounds of sloshing water up the steep driveway, to the Anthropocene.
According to the European Union’s Copernicus Climate Change Programme, July 2019 was the hottest recorded month in human history. The year 2019 also saw record-breaking heat in April, May, and June. Our planet is cooking, and since warm air holds more water vapor, storms are getting wetter. The downpour we experienced might not have been unusual for the tropics. But our cozy New England home wasn’t designed to handle that much water that fast. My flood situation seems pretty tame compared to the prospects facing residents of the Maldives or Marshall Islands, but the Anthropocene touches each one of us, unevenly, unexpectedly, and sometimes painfully.
As the lived experience of climate change becomes more tangible with each storm, flood, and heat wave, we need to activate our imaginations. It’s not easy to make sense of how it feels to live through dynamic ecological change. The buzzword “Anthropocene,” coined in 2000 by Nobel Prize-winning chemist Paul Crutzen, has been spreading its tentacles beyond climate science to the humanities, arts, and other public discourses, but it’s not clear what the term asks of us in response. We know that climate change has a human cause and that we are living through an “Age of Man” in a basic physical sense. We also know the abstract Anthropos that drives up carbon levels in the atmosphere is not the same as the individual Humans who suffer the most drastic effects. Industrial capitalism lights the fires, but people feel the waters rise.
I wrote Break Up the Anthropocene to add more imagination to our responses to climate change. I wanted to synthesize the many ways cultural theorists and eco-philosophers are describing our moment. I also wanted – to cite my argument-by-hashtag – to #pluralizetheanthropocene. That means transforming the ominous and monolithic rise of global temperature into varied, surprising, and radical possibilities. I wanted to exchange the global paradigms of 1.5 or 2 or 3 degrees Celsius with multiple responses to plural lived experiences of catastrophic ecological changes.
I needed help, and I got lots of it. The inspiration started with a gorgeous watercolor painting that swim-artist Vanessa Daws made for me in June 2018, when I was giving a #pluralizetheanthropocene lecture in Lausanne. The image, which balances a Ship of Fools alongside a mostly-hidden sea monster and an ocean full of plastic trash, launched this book with color and turbulence. I’ve tried to stay true to that spirit as the project has moved and turned.
The book’s seven chapters comprise forays into plural perspectives. A chapter called “Six Human Postures” treats Old Man Anthropos as a physical allegory, so that various eco-theoretical approaches involve asking the Old Man’s tired body to assume new positions. Yoga for the Anthropocene! Other chapters include investigations of anachronism as positive method, a Borges-meets-Shakespeare engagement with “now, now, very now” as the time of climate change, and a reading of errancy as central to natural systems. A glossary-chapter, “The Neologismcene,” catalogs two dozen proposed names for our warming age, from “Agnotocene” to “Trumpocene.” We need them all, and more besides. A concluding encounter with the whale-swallowed prophet Jonah suggests that the climate change stories we need today include both the human perspective that counsels repentance, change, and survival, and the posthuman vision that promises shock, disorientation, and new possibilities.
When I was writing this little book, I didn’t think that I’d feel one of its conclusions in my aching back. I need a better system for keeping stormwater out of my house. We need to stop pumping carbon into the atmosphere. But living in the Anthropocene means finding floods where you don’t expect them and hadn’t encountered them before.
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!
Before I scatter the still-smoldering fragments of the co-created Lexicon of #CreatingNature, I want to make a stab at what I’m taking away with me. The hours since the conference community dispersed from DC have been wonderfully intense. The maelstrom of my son’s high school graduation produced overflowing cross-currents of family, friends, and worlds in the process of changing. What are the things that last, as everything changes and ripens? What do we get to keep?
So, quickly and incompletely assimilated: this weekend’s events have created in me a phrase I hope never to forget: Everybody’s infrastructure all the time. The mash-up buzzed into my mind’s ear sometime after Ian received his diploma on Sunday morning. It’s been rattling through my imagination ever since.
Conference-goers and twitteristi may recognize the terms I’m combining. Lindy Elkins-Tanton, the scientist who took some time out from her project of sending a spaceship to the metal asteroid Psyche and building the Interplanetary Initiative at ASU to co-deliver our keynote, gave us the core: “Everybody is invited all the time.” To build things, and to rise to planet-sized challenges, she reasons, we need everybody together. It’s an audacious, inspiring, wonderfully plural vision.
The added word infrastructure comes from another of the conference’s distinguished guests, Michael Dove from Yale’s School of Forestry and Environmental Sciences. He talked about cultural infrastructure: the protocols, practices, stories, and conceptions of order through which human societies manage proximity to environmental danger. His example unspooled the cultural logic of small Javanese villages high on the slopes of the very active Merapi volcano, but the larger implications for a hotter and more violent global climate resonated powerfully, especially when we saw young climate protesters stretch out their bodies on hot concrete in front of the Supreme Court. We need new cultural infrastructure to live in the Anthropocene. Volcanos, Michael said, are “world making.” I wonder what cultural worlds are being made and destroyed today.
The last bit, all the time, also comes from Lindy. The words speak to collective action in the face of the multiply moving and disjunctive time scales of the Anthropocene. Can we imagine “all the time”? What sorts of futures and pasts and abrasive presents get collectivized in that phrase? Lindy also spoke about a 30-year project, like her mission to Psyche: what’s the thing you want to do in and for the world, especially if it takes you the rest of your professional life? I don’t yet have a good answer to that one yet. But I’m looking!
Everybody’s infrastructure all the time. I keep circling around the idea. We want infrastructure for everybody, and also everybody is and must be that infrastructure.
But first, before the fire cools, some more on/from/with #CreatingNature.
Academic symposia generate crossings and crossroads, and we pass through them to discover ideas that spring up like the Spontaneous Urban Plants Nancy Nowacek described caring for in post-industrial Brooklyn. Riding the train north on Saturday morning, sleepy and disoriented from after midnight Dark ‘n Stormies with Jeffrey, Lowell, and Erin, I felt the overflow. So many flickerings dancing through my head!
Some of the lexicon has already been e-immortalized via the twitter hashtag #creatingnature, but I also want to frame these words and thoughts in dialogue with our Shakespearean title and the Nature that’s creating us as we are creating and re-creating Nature.
The great goddess Natura and English word Nature conceal powerful tensions and fantasies, from natural philosophy to human nature to the interlocking structures of influence that gave rise to the word “ecology” in the nineteenth century. Nature is an imagined unity with which (some say) we must dispense, since Nature should not be separate from culture or Art or other human-generated phenomena. Thinking Nature points us into physical space, toward objects in spaces, spread out across and around our physical worlds. Nature produces the frictions and feelings that we worked so hard to represent last week.
But as I tried to catch in words during the Closing Roundtable, the Shakespearean modifier “creating” also hurls Nature into time. It’s the disorienting meeting of place and time, Nature and creation, that generates shared and shareable narratives. “Creating” as agentive principle asks us to recognize that the things we love will change, that they will graduate high school and leave our shared homes. Things we fear or hate or struggle against will also change. Change underlies and unsettles and makes uncertain. Creating cultivates the feeling that the ground under our feet may open up or is always opening up, so that falling into novelty is more norm than exception. “Creating” as first principle of errancy, in this sense, connects to a post-sustainability or dynamic ecology, something that I first wrestled my way into thinking about by writing almost a decade ago on this conference’s favorite literary touch stone, Lear in the storm.
Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks!
Creating Nature, says the mad old homeless king, hurts and confuses and wets us “to the skin.” He responds with a lyric howl. In response to that inhuman abrasion, we (academics and teachers and word-people more broadly) need lexical tools.
Here are some of the tools we gathered at the Folger last week, and some thoughts about how we might use them. Apologies for taking a bloggy and sloppy attitude toward citations in what follows!
Being a list of lexical tools for/from Creating Nature, including some fantasies about their future Uses
Session 1: Sustenance
Karen Raber opened us up with the proper ambivalence toward food for the body and narratives to sustain imagination. What sustains? At what cost? Who’s listening? Who’s eating what?
Counter-pedagogy: Right from the start I had the sense that the things we were seeking wouldn’t move in only one direction. Julian Yates described Lear’s response to the Noah story as counter-pedagogy of dislocation and alienation, which turned the idea of narrative as sustenance toward less comforting places. “Survival is insufficient,” he quoted from Station Eleven, suggesting that we worry ourselves beyond simple preservation toward things slippery and monumental. To create an Ark entails preservation through radical isolation — just so many pairs of creatures and no more. Julian and Jeffrey’s refuge-focused re-reading of Noah pushes us into the rain, where counter-stories flourish and, at least for a time, swim.
Parasitic opportunism We were a bit nervous as nine o’clock struck and we were still one speaker short, but Dagomar Degroot successfully navigated both cross-town traffic and the volatile sleeping habits of his newborn baby to offer a brilliant tool-word via his reading of the Dutch Republic’s Frigid Golden Age, which leveraged the Little Ice Age to the small nation’s advantage. During his fantastic talk, I had the queasy sense that the geopolitical advantages of today’s climate crisis may also support Arctic nations, through increased access to fossil fuels, trade routes, and agriculture — which may somewhat explain Russia’s recent resurgence, though in fairness the community of Arctic exploiters also includes Canada and the USA. To seize the opportunities of parasitism sounds both enticing and likely corrupting.
Aquaculture Maritime environmental lawyer Robin Craig’s great overview of how fishing has created (or re-created) the modern ocean gave rich context to the “shifting baselines” problem in environmental history, in which each generation’s scarcity gets reimagined as a new normal. Thinking about her gestures toward a global history of aquaculture, I was struck by “culture” as both physical and conceptual substrate, a medium in which things and ideas grow. Might the vertical oyster cultivation that thrives on a local scale on the other side of my little Connecticut town presage aqua-cultural changes yet to come?
“To ark the ocean” Building (I think) on Jeremy Jackson’s keynote at the Oceans Conference she had co-hosted in Utah this past February, Robin performed the interdisciplinary move the conference was designed to facilitate when she spliced her thinking about fishery management into Julian’s ark-visions. I loved this moment because the great hope I had (and have) for #creatingnature is precisely this sort of crossing, in which a marine environmental lawyer jumps on board with a literary project and thinks together about (to borrow one of Lindy’s phrases) the biggest things we can do. Why shouldn’t the ocean be our Ark?
Session 2: Storms
Joe Campana offered three poetic storm-aphorisms on which I’m finding much post-storm sustenance:
Storms create ( or”write”).
Storms expose (systems).
Storm Time Kellie Robertson may not have known it but the clock was ticking and the storm heading our way as she outlined a series of “geostories” regarding a fatal lightning strike on an English church in 1652. Each successive account opened up new gaps from first-hand experience and titled toward new ideological warnings and calls to action. “All things come by Nature,” wrote one post-storm recap, including perhaps the Anglo-Dutch Wars and perhaps even the English Civil War. Storm Time and narrative time represent, in Kellie’s intriguing metaphor, a setting which frames, displays, and perhaps (mis-)interprets the jewel of experience. Storms are story-makers, writers, exposers, witnesses, Joe had already reminded us.
“Shipwreck years” Valerie Trouet’s triple archive of trees rings from the Florida keys, meteorological data from the eighteenth century, and the records of shipwrecks from the Spanish flota enabled a deeply persuasive story about shipwreck years punctuating the variable climates of the Little Ice Age in the early modern North Atlantic. I’ve loved this project ever since it was described to me by my cousin-in-law Noah Diffenbaugh, a paleoclimatologist at Stanford who knew about my literary work on shipwreck and wondered how it might interface with Valerie’s analysis. It’s not a simple fit. She uses the collected records of Spanish shipwrecks as a proxy for water temperatures in the Caribbean, while I explore individual tales as narrative responses to environmental hostility. There’s a numbers problem: I explore a lot of fictional and real shipwrecks in my book, but not nearly enough to draw statistical conclusions. But in some ways even more intriguing to me were Valerie’s reading practices, not of texts but of trees. Her tree-ring lab in Arizona comprises a practice of technical close reading, an engagement with natural codes and patterns legible in the trees that she does not harm in her practice, as she was careful to remind us. Like many humanists, I sometimes feel swamped under all the books I don’t have time to read. But what about texts that aren’t obviously books? How much remains to be read in what was once called the Book of Nature? I want to open my whale’s throat to learn all the languages of all the creating creatures.
Experience Henry Turner was one of several English professors who noted his own critical identity on the margins of a rising tide of self-professed eco-profs — and then Henry, like Debapriya and Liza later, contributed some of the most potent ideas and terms of the event. Henry came to experience via John Dewey’s pragmatism, and also via a line I quoted some years ago from the early modern French mariner Samuel de Champlain: “Experience is better than knowledge.” The original French is better:
L’experience passe science.
I ventured my semi-coherent French vowels to Valerie during one of the many breaks, suggesting that the mariner’s language values the claims of experience’s practiced hands over science’s rational head. “I don’t know about that,” Valerie said, in a very reasonable defense of science.
Of course we want and need and use both experience and science, the rational claims of thought and the instinctive feel of a skilled hand on the tiller. But I take Champlain’s point, and I think also Henry’s, to indicate a mystery at the heart of experience that hyper-rationalism, including the rationalism of all academic practices, occludes. It’s very hard to (in another of Henry’s phrases that I hope I’m not garbling) “feel what it feels like to be thinking.” Thinking about experience asks us to feel that thinking.
INTERRUPTION: TORNADO WARNING! Melville’s Ahab insists on being, in the middle of the personified impersonal, a personality. We experienced, in the middle of the session on storms and time and experience, a storm. Huddling in the basement and the room where they store theatrical costumes jerked us out of the formal conference. It suddenly re-assembled us into unplanned conversations, responses to proximity and anxiety and not-knowing what the storm was doing outside, except via the glowing proxies of our phone-radars. I always want to run out into storms, Lear-like, and encounter their vastness with my body. I’m glad I’ve learned to listen to wiser voices at such times.
Distraction In Henry’s reading of Dewey, experience struggles against distraction. Thee disjunctive side-step of the tornado was both distraction and jump-start. “Did we just experience climate change,” Henry asked as we filed back into our seats. Single events are only weather, not climate, several people noted — but what if climate change was not the tornado but the warning, not the storm but its over-writing and infiltration of our professional event? Does what we know about a post-Natural climate or “no analogue state” provide an interpretive tool with which to read the tree-ring accumulations of weather into a new human/inhuman language?
Co-Plenary: Climate / Weather / Feeling
Aspirational humanism We eco-humanists have been worrying about the human for some time, and ideas of the post-human and even post-humanities have staked out meaningful claims in our discussions. That’s all the more reason to value Lindy and Jeffrey’s co-plenary declaration of hope and aspiration for human accomplishments. I suppose if you’re leading a multi-year space mission to the asteroid Psyche it pays to thing expansively — Psyche is something like 200 million miles away — but I also appreciated the invitation inside my favorite library. What is the big thing we want? I love conferences and books and phrases and brilliant lectures in the Paster Reading Room. But maybe there are bigger things?
“Everyone is invited all the time” Lindy’s marching orders about inclusion emerge from her Interplanetary project, and I suspect also from her collaborations with Dean-Gandalf interlocutor Jeffrey Cohen. I love the audacity. Everyone! All the time! In a world of universities with scarce resources and academic cultures that value selectivity, aggressive access has the flavor of myth. What if we can build a spaceship Ark Ocean big enough to invite everyone? What do you call an Ark without an outside? Can we think insides without outsides?
Session 3: Shelter
Jen Munroe and Rebecca Laroche re-started us on day 2 with an OED-fueled exploration of shelter as military technology and, surprisingly, tool for conflict. They also pointed us toward the International Climate march that was happening that morning in front of the Supreme Court and elsewhere around the globe.
Cultural infrastructure Michael Dove, who was heroically struggling with a cold, presented his research on the cultural life of Javanese villages high up on the slope of the violent Merapi volcano. In his telling, the imagined “spirit village” that lives inside the crater and mirrors the human village on the slope represents a fictional stability, a way of living close to destructive forces. Volcanos, which are among the most consequential forcing agents in pre-industrial climate change, also generate fertile soil and, perhaps because of their danger, a partial respite from the “hydraulic state” that controlled the labor and lives of lowland Javanese peasants. To domesticate the volcano and transform it from threat to “world-making agent” and “interlocutor” represents a cultural gambit, a making-legible of a fiery violence that makes even trees and the ocean seem relatively tame.
Surrender Debapriya Sarkar’s moving evocation of shore as partial shelter in early modern literary romance balanced Michael’s reading of the volcano. Sea against mountain, water against fire: both hostile elements that lure, destroy, and stimulate the imaginations of those who live alongside them. Like many, I was especially struck by the last word of her talk, “surrender,” which upon discussion spoke to many our own memories of the experience of coastal storms, as well as to Debapriya’s personal response to the recent elections in India. Both talks in this session worked to “culturize” climate (to adapt a phrase of Michael’s) in the sense of recognizing the interstitial work that cultural forms, mythic and narrative, do whenever humans live near hostile environments they know to be violent but yet remain deeply desired.
EXCURSION: CLIMATE PROTEST
The young protesters lay on the hot sidewalk in front of the Supreme Court:
“You will die of old age / We will die of climate change.”
“The seas will rise, and so will we!”
I was glad to be there to see them.
Session 4: Spirits & Science
Anne Harris introduced our final session on “Spirits & Science” with a nod toward plurality and a celebration of the possibilities of slippery surfaces and encounters.
Slippage We all held our breath as Lowell Duckert told the tale of Balmol (sp?), a 17c Dutch explorer whose glissade launched him off the glacier into the Arctic Sea — though he seems in the end to have surfaced and returned to his ship. Nancy Nowacek elaborated the slippery path of her Citizen Bridge project, about which she wrote from Oceanic New York back in 2015. So many slippery surfaces! So many fortunate and frightening encounters!
Habitat compensation Nancy’s depiction of Habitat Compensation Island, built outside the industrial port of Dubai, got us thinking about what “compensation” means in cultural terms. Robin reminded us that compensation describes a legal remedy, and also that marine environments tend to repair themselves more efficiently than terrestrial ones.
“Nature has no end” Liza Blake’s reading of dramatic stoicism in George Chapman’s plays sounded out a bass note of inhuman affinity: what if the ecologically just thing to want is to become soil, to feed the grasses that feed the cows? Much of the two-day event strained us beyond the literary context that brings many of us to the Folger Shakespeare Library. Liza’s wonderfully suggestive reading of Chapman’s stoic poetics and physics suggested ways that the literary speaks to the sciences, social sciences, and more public and political discourses.
Slimy Agitation Chris Pastore’s bottom-up history of the ocean and its “thousand thousand slimy things” provided the perfect ending to our gathering because its vision of a material, foamy, slimy experience-filled ocean allowed us to see, or perhaps better to feel, the world into which we were heading. I’ve been thinking about jellyfish for a long time, and what it will be like as an ocean swimmer to learn to live with their slimy sting. Chris didn’t make that prospect seem more comfortable — but he did suggest that slime is less the exception than the rule in ocean history.
Closing Roundtable: Interlopers and invitations
I had probably too much to say at the closing roundtable, as perhaps this too-long blog post shows that I still have too much to say. But the thing I want to remember now was about interlopers and invitations.
Several people, mostly humanists who don’t identify as ecocritics, but I think also the scientists and non-Folger natives, spoke about the challenge of feeling like an interloper among Shakespeareans. I understand that feeling, and I often feel it too. But since I was the one who issued the #creatingnature invitations, I want to re-emphasize Lindy’s wisdom: “Everybody is invited all the time.” If you think about that phrase, it’s a challenge both to the invited and the hosts. All the time!
We feel like interlopers. We can, in fact, interlope, moving into conversations in which we’re not expected.
But to build a new infrastructure adequate to the Nature our culture has created needs all of us. Everybody’s infrastructure all the time. That’s what we need, and we need it now.
Looking forward to the next gatherings, wherever they will be!
The final event at “Creating Nature” on Fri 5/24 will be a roundtable featuring the chairs of all four sessions, the two co-plenarists, and me. We’ll be trying to put everything together and generate something like a rough lexicon of shared terms, competing ideas, and avenues for future thinking.
The session chairs, who in an eco-terminological twist we are calling “conversation stewards,” will help us bring into dialogue the central insights of each panel. Karen Raber will discuss “Sustenance,” Joe Campana “Storms,” Rebecca Laroche and Jen Munroe “Shelter,” and Anne Harris “Spirits & Science.” Co-plenarists Jeffrey Cohen and Lindy Elkins-Tanton will return to and extend their thinking about Weather / Climate / Feeling.
My own role at the end of what I’m sure will be an exhausting and intense two days will be to weave some of our shared words together.
How do the threats posed by Storms challenge our need for Shelter? (In a fantasy world we might finish this conversation by all taking the train to New York to see Glenda Jackson rage against the weather in King Lear.)
How can the ornate systems of meaning we label Spirits & Science provide conceptual and material Sustenance for human bodies in threatening weather?
What new terms do we need in a lexicon to bring together the premodern humanities with the sciences, the social sciences, and the creative arts?
We’re also looking forward to the questions and insights provided by a fully booked house of 60-odd audience members.
Hoping to see you in DC soon! Please also follow along on the #creatingnature hashtag!
The fourth panel session of the conference will complete a circle by looking at how early modern and medieval ideas of science and nonhuman causation can speak to discourses of the environmental humanities as well as to ideas from modern scientists we will have been introduced to the day before. In premodern cultures, boundaries we assume to be clear between the spiritual and the scientific blurred. This panel explores those blurry in-between spaces and ideas.
The chair of this session is Art Historian (and soon-to-be Dean) Anne Harris, who explores ecomateriality in medieval art and is the person in the world in whose response to the Notre Dame fire I’m most interested. (Her amazing essay on the ecologies of fire, “Pyromena, Fire’s Doing” appears in Jeffrey Cohen and Lowell Duckert’s Elemental Ecocriticism. And I remember when those ideas started as a dazzling talk in Tuscaloosa!) I wonder if she’ll splice in a few quite comments on fire, stained glass, and historical memory into her presiding over this panel.
One special feature of the last of these four sessions will be a collaborative paper jointly presented by the artist Nancy Nowacek, inventor of New York harbor’s amazing “Citizen Bridge” project, and literary ecocritic Lowell Duckert. These two have collaborated in the past, in my open-source collection Oceanic New York, and I look forward to hearing them think together about environmental questions and forms of knowledge.
They will be joined on the panel by maritime environmental historian Christopher Pastore, who does fantastic work on marine science and knowledge practices, and by Liza Blake, a literary scholar who works across the discourses of poetics and physics, with special interest in the wonderfully elaborate poetic physics of seventeenth-century writer Margaret Cavendish, of some of whose poems she’s produced a great online edition that I’ve used in the classroom.
As we wind our way toward the final sessions of “Creating Nature,” we will be combining our shared lexicons, thinking about how we can best speak to each other and to our shared concerns with the nonhuman environment. How might the discourses of spiritualism and religion speak to and with the sciences, both in historical research and in today’s world of skepticism and denialism? What shared projects of meaning-making seem possible, both in the past and today?