Ever since I’ve been back in London I’ve been wanting to blog about the fantastic literature and nature conference I went to at the University of Worcester earlier this month – and at last I have a moment to do so. (London is BUSY!)
The conference ran over three days (5-7 September) and there were so many sessions I wanted to go to (here’s the programme), but with three sessions running concurrently I had to make impossible choices and miss wonderful sounding sessions. Notably, ‘Environmentalism versus capitalism?’, my own subject, which clashed with ‘Critical ecotopias – indigenous and literary’ (my other subject) by Monash academic Geoff Barry.
It was the biennial conference of the Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment (UK & Ireland), which was founded in 1998. ASLE-UKI represents and supports scholars and writers interested in the environment and its expression in the cultural imagination – and provides a forum for ‘environmental criticism’ and ‘ecocriticism’. That is, ‘the study of the intricate relationships between human and nonhuman environments, broadly construed’.
It was my first ecocriticism conference and it was fascinating, stimulating and so thought provoking, listening to the papers and meeting and talking to other scholars in my field. There’s no way I can cover the whole conference in one blog post, especially as I could only go to a third of the papers, but here’s an overview of some of it, with more to come.
1. Scene setting #1: briefly, ecocriticism is a field first formulated in the 1990s which intends specifically to address the contemporary crises in the environment from a literary perspective. In one of the earliest surveys of the field, The Ecocriticism Reader (1996), Cheryl Glotfelty talked about the significance of this literary work: ‘Many of us in colleges and universities worldwide find ourselves in a dilemma. Our temperaments and talents have deposited us in literature departments, but, as environmental problems compound, work as usual seems unconscionably frivolous. If we’re not part of the solution, we’re part of the problem.’
Glotfelty broadly defined ecocriticism as ‘the study of the relationship between literature and the physical environment’. But ecocriticism is diverse and its definitions are various. Which is exciting for me: it’s an energetic new literary field still in the throes of creation, its parameters are still being marked out, and it’s attracting some brilliant students and academics. All this was evident at the conference.
2. scene setting #2: the University of Worcester was the perfect venue for a conference on literature and the environment – it is green and spacious and the surrounding countryside is beautiful.
One of the highlights of the conference was a 3-hour walk through Castlemorton Common and the Malvern Hills before the conference dinner at the lovely and very delicious restaurant The Fold. The Malvern Hills form a natural borderland between the Severn Vale to the east and Wales to the west. Here they are, with and without ecocritics.
3. The three keynote speakers were also a highlight, especially for me the mind twisting infinite loops of Professor Thierry Bardini from the Universite de Montreal, who spoke on ‘Decompicultures: Decomposition of Culture and Cultures of Decomposition’. The other speakers were Professor Jed Rasula (Helen S Lanier Distinguished Professor at the University of Georgia) who talked about ‘Bringing in the Trash: The Cultural Ecology of Dada’; and green economist Professor Molly Scott Cato from Roehampton University who talked about ‘Adam Smith vs Adam Bede: Work, Craft and Environment in a Green Economy’. More on these anon.
4. Because of the conference title, lots of papers were about the idea of compost, in all its senses, from the most literal to the most metaphoric. Dr David Arnold from the University of Worcester and one of the two conference organisers (the other was Dr John Parham) even dedicated his paper – ‘Sifting Cities: Patterns of Reclamation in Surrealist Representations of Outmoded Spaces’ – to his father, a master composter.
Composting proved to be a very rich and resonant idea, especially in the layering of texts and places over each other and over time, such as in Amy Cutler’s ‘”Time spirals out of seed”: dendrochronology and modern British poetry’, which among other things looked at Zoe Skoulding’s poem ‘In the forest where they fell’, in which history is presented as a fertile, vegetative space, and the forest as a living archive of cross-fertilised time periods.
It also invited the use of such neologisms as Tim Ingold‘s ‘taskscape’ (‘just as the landscape is an array of related features, so – by analogy – the taskscape is an array of related activities’) and Michael Davidson‘s ‘palimtextual’, used to emphasise the ‘multilayered quality of the material text’ and its social and cultural interactions.
5. There were so many fascinating papers, including Sam Solnick’s ‘”Trading to a planet”: JH Prynne and Carbon’, Daisy Hildyard’s ‘What are we laughing at when we laugh at scientists? Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and Ian McEwan’s Solar‘, Richard Kerridge’s ‘Literary consilience in practice’, Mandy Bloomfield’s ‘Palimtextual tracts: Susan Howe’s American landscapes’, David Borthwick’s ‘”All havoc and weakness” (Alice Oswald), The Contemporary Long Ecopoem’, John Miller’s ‘Decolonising endangered species: postcolonial ecocriticism, biodiversity and the conservation travel narrative’ and Garry MacKenzie’s ‘Beyond the Compost Heap: David Harsent’s Edgeland Garden and the Breakdown of Human Society’.
I hope to have time to write more about these and other papers – but in the meantime, this conference convinced me that ecocriticism is not a dusty backward looking field confined to the study of Wordsworth and the Romantic poets (as some have tried to persuade me) – but a vibrant and dynamic new area of study which is attracting some provocative scholars, including Richard Kerridge, Greg Garrard and John Parham, who were there, and many others who were not.