Searching for Place: Interpretations of the Landscape and Environment – Conference at the University of Wyoming. 28th – 29th March
UW’s graduate conference on the theme of Searching for Place: Interpretations of the Landscape and Environment took place over the last couple of days, with delegates from around the USA. I’m struck by the extent of interest in environmental studies in the American western states. Nathan Straight (Utah State University) and I were the Keynote speakers. Nathan’s talk was based on his recent book Autobiography, Ecology, and the Well-Placed Self: The Growth of Natural Biography in Contemporary American Life Writing. His work on place, environmental justice and the connected self – autobiographical subjects that foreground their connectedness to other people and the biosphere – addresses key directions in environmental writing and art. I recommend Nathan’s book to readers who don’t already know it. His talk on writing about ecology and landscape in Northern Utah and Oregon was very compelling. It’s easy to see ways in which his research on Native American writers and the land ties in with the work of Caskey Russell, here at UW.
My keynote, titled Literary Landscapes and the Environmental Imagination: Damaged Memories and Sites of Restitution, considered works by Wordsworth, Walter Scott, Percy Shelley and Robert Macfarlane. A substantial section was concerned with last November’s Essex MA Wild Writing field visit to Orford Ness, a highlight of the MA and one of our several field research trips. For readers who might not know about Orford Ness, it is a cuspate, mainly shingle spit (a stretch of shingle, sand and saltmarsh foreland where the longshore drift is in opposing directions) along the mid-Suffolk English coast. The northern end comprises what was once Slaughden Quay at Aldeburgh, where George Crabbe set his account of the poor residents of a fishing town in his 1810 epistolary poem The Borough (on which Benjamin Britten’s 1945 opera Peter Grimes was based). Subject to coastal erosion and now almost entirely reclaimed by the North Sea, Slaughden has a marina and a Martello tower. The tower is a Napoleonic fortress – ironically, a monument to England’s defences against an invasion that didn’t take place. The sea continues to be a real invasive force. Aldeburgh has lost sixteen streets since Crabbe published his poem, and the now-village of Dunwich to the north is not only a place replete with myth and legend but well known as the site where one of Europe’s most important medieval ports lies under the North Sea (there are rumours that the bells of churches can be heard during storms).
Now a National Trust nature reserve, Orford Ness was a ministry of defence research and weapons testing site for much of the twentieth century. Under-the-horizon radar was developed in a building too polluted with beryllium for visitors now to enter. The Orford Ness Atomic Weapons Research Establishment was operational from 1956 to 1972. This is a landscape where nature meets Armageddon, even though amongst the exploded and live buried ordinance, and the pollution by a range of toxic substances, there is a complex ecology: the shingle ridges and rest of the Ness teem with life at the same time that the place bears witness to a culture of mass destruction. Lichens and plants grow on abandoned buildings, fuel pumps and shrapnel, and wheatears perch on buildings that tested parts for some of the worst weapons ever invented. In this strange environment, the markers of extreme human and natural violence (shingle spits are the result of extreme wave action, and each ridge represents a “tidal event”) ironically provide habitats on which life depends.
Back to the UW conference. It’s impressive to hear work of such a professional quality at MA level, and on a wide range of topics venturing new areas of enquiry. The parallel sessions meant that I wasn’t able to hear everyone, but here is a brief account of what I managed to attend. In a session on ‘locating meaning’ in place, Elizabeth Sheckler from the University of New Hampshire explored the liminal spaces of mixed-race experience through tropes of scopophobia in Nella Larsen’s Quicksand. Courtney Holroyd, from UW gave a incisive account of aesthetics and third-wave feminism in marginal spaces in Chicana literature. Steve Bargdill, also from UW, concluded the session with a compelling paper about small towns, the restoration of ‘Main Streets’ in the post-industrial USA, and reciprocal processes of disneyfication. My keynote talk was followed by a delicious and sociable dinner. Here is where the Chokecherry wine comes in – homemade by Harry Whitlock, it more than lived up to its promise.
The second morning began with Molly Sublett’s paper exploring conceptualisations of ‘girlworld,’ with reference particularly to Rosalind Wiseman’s Queen Bees and Wanabees and Mary Pipher’s Reviving Ophelia. I thought of Fanny Burney’s Evelina (1778) and Jane Austen’s Emma (1816), both of which are clearly ‘girlworld’ novels of their time. Harry’s paper on James Smith’s captivity narrative and the subsequent commodification and exploitation of Ohio’s natural resources included some searing photographic imagery alongside the intricately researched and interpretive content. Mariah Price (UW) presented a nuanced account of marginality, mestizo culture, and Miguel Delgado’s Romeo and Julietta. Kenny Thompson’s reading of King Lear, with reference to Cormack Mccarthy’s No Country for Old Men, turned on a penetrating analysis of financial semantics and clothing metaphors. After Nathan’s keynote and a delicious lunch, Hope Gentry (UW) spoke about the resurgence of interest in Shinto in Japan, paying attention to the rise in visiting shrines compared with the nation’s recently revised school curriculum history textbooks as controversial spaces. Jaun Valdez knows more about computer games and game theory than I ever will. His talk on interactive participation in the world of gaming and avatars was a revelation. Leighanne Allen’s paper on William Blake’s Urizen – the last talk that I heard – confronted the problem of whether Blake’s graphics interpret or critique his text, or avoid doing either. Papers close to my own interest in the environmental imagination that I would particularly like to have heard include Kristin Bagdonov’s (Colorado State University) talk on Barry Lopez and ‘learning to love wasteland’ and Brooke Stanley’s (U Penn) ‘Sense of Place and Beyond: reimagining the rural.’
I haven’t been able to mention everyone who took part. For further details see the full program: UW Conference Program
The English Department at the University of Wyoming made possible this valuable conference. Congratulations and thanks to the faculty and students involved.
Recommended further reading that includes Orfordness:
W. G. Sebald, The Rings of Saturn (Vintage, 1998. First published in German as Die Ringe des Saturn: Eine englische Wallfahrt , 1995).
Robert Macfarlane, The Wild Places, (Granta, 2007).
Jules Pretty, This Luminous Coast, (Full Circle Editions, 2011).
George Crabbe, The Borough (1810).