I’m on my way to SAA in Toronto in the morning, but I’ll drop a couple paragraphs into the Bookfish’s mouth before I go. This is the opening and one other paragraph from a new article, that will appear at some point in JEMCS. It grew out of a great one-day conference at Columbia, Commons and Collectivities, back in May 2011.
The title is “‘Making the green one red’: Dynamic Ecologies in Macbeth, Edward Barlow’s Journal, and Robinson Crusoe.”
We need a more colorful eco-palette. As ecological interpretations have become increasingly central to twenty-first-century literary studies, calls have emerged to move “beyond the green” toward a more variegated spectrum of environmental alternatives. What Jeffrey Jerome Cohen calls “ecology’s rainbow” refers to a current goal of the environmental humanities–to pluralize thinking about the relationship between human beings and nonhuman nature. My work in this area has flowed out of oceanic or “blue” ecologies, but the logic of dynamic ecological thinking cannot stop at the water’s edge.The need to multiply ecocritical models responds to an increasing recognition, which began in the ecological sciences and has emerged in the humanities and social sciences more recently, that natural systems are more dynamic and less stable than once believed. The logic that moves from stasis and sustainability to dynamic “post-equilibrium” models requires that we match the constant innovations of natural systems with flexible interpretive practices. With this pressure toward dynamism in mind, this essay reconsiders green—but not the old green. Remembering that green is an oceanic as well as terrestrial color, and using a famously opaque phrase from Macbeth as a linguistic cue to re-introduce complexity into our literary models of natural systems, this essay offers immersion in hostile waters as a structure within which to think about the human encounter with nonhuman nature. In this model, it is no longer a question of “being green,” but of enduring, with effort and difficulty, inside the “green one.”
The syntactic ambiguity of Macbeth’s phrase underscores the conceptual difficulty of the project of ecocriticism. Re-seeing the blue global ocean as both green and red creates a colorful mess that might confuse as much as clarify. But rather than attempting to smooth out the system—rather than trying to argue that blue or green or red is the real color of the ocean—this essay insists that the price of admission to this eco-conversation is accepting disorderly environments. To go with our more colorful eco-palette, we need an appetite for chaos. To perform this disorder in my own methods, I am going to explore three multi-hued seas in three texts with three different critical methods. First, I will read the oceanic green in a canonical text, through an exaggeratedly close reading of this particular phrase in Macbeth. Next, I will shift from the canonical to the archival and multi-media by highlighting a little-known episode from the manuscript journal of Edward Barlow, a seventeenth-century English sailor. Finally, I will turn away from traditional analysis to a critical mode that flows with narrative, re-telling as ecocritical allegory the shipwreck scene from Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. The hero’s travail from sea to beach, I suggest, represents the ecological encounter in a moment of crisis. These three texts and three critical methods together reveal the blue-red-green ocean as a hybrid space, a natural environment intimately connected to human bodies while also threatening their survival.