For years I’ve been hearing about the Environmental Humanities Research School (NoRS-EH) at Stavanger, Norway, so it was a treat to get to spend a few days there to help teach a weeklong Blue Humanities PhD course with Ellen Arnold, a medieval river historian who’s also my colleague on the editorial board of the Environmental Humanities in Premodern Culture book series. (Send us your EH manuscripts!)
Part of the fun of spending this fall in Europe has been slowly coming to understand the ways that European universities run graduate education and research funding. The weeklong course I helped launch in Stavanger was organized by Ellen and the Greenhouse / NoRS-Eh team, with help from a pair of guest instructors, namely me and Aike Peter Rots, who is the leader of an ERC project on whales in maritime East Asia. The students come from institutions across Europe, from the UK (Goldsmith’s and Queen Mary) to several in Norway to the Netherlands and Germany. Their project are wonderfully diverse and creative – whale eco-tourism! Icelandic sagas! jellyfish as/and media! maritime expertise and the Norman invasion! sci fi narratives of/beyond sustainability! interspecies colonialism! fishing for sardines in Senegal! So many amazing things in progress here; it makes me feel very optimistic about the future of blue humanities scholarship.
The students are a lively and perceptive bunch, and I greatly enjoyed spending a few days with them. On day 1, beyond introductions, we discussed forms of the blue humanities through my just-published “Poetics of Planetary Water” article and John Gillis’s 2013 Blue Humanities open-source essay. We also spent a couple hours digging slowly into one of the central originating works in this thought-stream, Rachel Carson’s The Sea Around Us (1951). It was fun to wrestle with Carson’s metaphors and her powerful drive to humanize the features and forces of the inhuman sea. I came away, as I always do when I return to Carson, thinking that the richness of her approach still has much to generate in the present – though reading this mid-20c text alongside scholars of the 21c also showed me some ways that her writing remains of its time.
In the afternoon we played the role of live studio audience for a Greenhouse Zoom Book Talk for Charne Lavery’s Writing Ocean Worlds: Indian Ocean Fiction in English (2021). She talked engagingly about how the particular history and geography of the Indian Ocean world shaped its modern fictions, with attention to Amitav Ghosh and Abdulrazak Gurnah, as well as glancing notes on Joseph Conrad’s Indian Ocean novels. We in the room were invited to ask questions, but I thought I would hang back to let the students speak. Then, to our collective amusement, Charne said something about my writing about maritime metaphors, so I popped out of my chair and to show my face on camera. A strange moment, perhaps, since she would have had no idea I was in Norway! But we had a nice chat about Ghosh and Conrad, a relationship that I suspect we’d both like to give some more thought to in the future.
The combination of Carson’s lyrical scientism and Lavary’s vision of the Indian Ocean made a perfect lead up to the intellectually grueling evening event of day 1, in which we struggled with the brain-breaking puzzle of Pisces,a commercial fishing / conservation / fisheries management board game that even the website boardgamegeek.com admits is a bit hard to understand. I agree with Ellen that the bait pieces, though present in a little bag with the rest of the game, appear not to have any function that the directions clarify. An allegory of industrial fishing? Four of us baffled ourselves thoroughly as we faced the game’s byzantine complexity, though with each turn we attempted we tried to add another element. Each turn has eight elements. Clearly it’s a game designed by fisheries scientists! Perhaps the moral is that we need Rachel Carson’s lyric deftness to trace a path through all this complexity? Or perhaps it’s just really hard to make a living as a conservation-minded fisherman?
The morning of day 2 brought us back together with two wonderfully disparate literary texts that explored different models of water-intimacy. First we looked at early medieval Latin poems about Romano-Christian Gaul (I may be using the wrong historical terms, but I think that’s pretty close – Christian Latinate culture from the 5-9th centuries?) about waterscapes and human engineering. We had all read Ellen’s resonant Ecozona article about how premodern Latin literary culture engaged with French rivers as fluvial borders, cultural markers, and flexible symbols. Looking closely at these poems was a great shift from the sometimes overbroad “what is the blue humanities” discourse that we’d been wrestling with the day before. One particular close and intricate poetic portrait of a flooded riverscape seemed to present naturecultural disruption in an especially gorgeous way that recalled for me Titania’s speech about natural disorder in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Excellent stuff!
Next we turned the research of Greenhouse fellow Susanne Ferwerda, who teaches now at Utretcht University in her native Netherlands but not that long ago completed her PhD at the University of Tasmania. She shared with us the speculative futurist short story “Water” by the Aboriginal (Mununjali) writer Ellen van Neerven. The story is a brilliant riff on a transpecies love story mixed up with a political resistance narrative and a satire of the Aboriginal art scene in Australia. Van Neerven’s echoes and inversions of Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis books as well as Nnedi Okorofor’s Lagoon made it a rich text with which to talk about blue questions, especially the symbolic contrasts between fresh and salt water that are so crucial in the coastal areas of northern New South Wales where the story is set. I want to look up van Neerven’s poetry too!
After a group lunch in the UiS cafeteria and a head-clearing walk up to the tower to watch the sun already going down, at 2:15 I gave a public talk on Blue Humanities pasts and futures. It was great to give the talk to an audience with a core of committed PhD students, most of whom had travelled all the way to Stavanger for a course on the Blue Humanities. I also loved the wide ranging q&a featuring questions from Dolly and Finn Arne Jorgenson, who co-run the Greenhouse / NoRS-EH and have made it such an important fixture of European and global environmental humanities thinking. We talked about how my own trajectories, from oceans to other forms of water, and my personal practice as a sea swimmer, contrast with the river valley and flood plains histories that impact the lives of so many people, both today and in the past. We also talked about how academic practices produce messy collectives, and why polyvocal communities are the best ones.
That was the end of my official contributions to this week long course, which continues with a museum day on Wednesday and a closer look at East Asia during the last few days. But it wasn’t quite my final event with the enthusiastic PhD students. They led me on a long and labyrinthine walk down toward the water’s edge, past the football stadium, through an open construction site, past a massive structure used to repair oil rigs, until we finally arrived a a small, basically hidden barge, tied up to a dock in full late afternoon darkness. On the barge was a small wooden sauna hut with a wood stove burning inside. There were also two ladders leading down to the imposingly cold waters of the bay. (The water temperature was, I think, around 8 degrees C, or 46 F, which seems about right – but the air was a bit colder than that!). I enjoyed popping in and out of the cold water while warming up with everyone in the sauna. I left earlier than the students. The walk back to the bus stop through the maze of construction was tricky, and I did get on the bus heading the wrong way – but I made it back to to the cozy Yladir hotel eventually.
Such a pleasure to visit the Greenhouse and NoRS-EH! It’s been, over the past few years for people like me who follow environmental humanities scholarship online, something of a legendary place. The Book Talk e-archive that Dolly and Finn Arne have compiled since the early days of Covid moved so many things online is an amazing resource. Even though daylight was in short supply – the sun didn’t come up until after 9 am, and it set before 4 pm – I enjoyed some great walks around campus. But the fjord hikes will have to wait for a future visit!