OCTOBER 3, 2020
WHEN ONE THINKS of the environment, most often a single color comes to mind: green. But some environmental thinkers question the primacy of the green and pastoral in our collective vision of the global eco-sphere. Thinkers in the “blue humanities,” such as Steve Mentz, point out that water covers the majority of our planet’s surface, and that understanding the human relationship to nature might depend more on the sea than the land.
A professor of English at St. John’s University, Mentz specializes in combining early modern literary studies with contemporary ecocriticism. His previous publications include Romance for Sale in Early Modern England (2006), At the Bottom of Shakespeare’s Ocean (2009), Shipwreck Modernity: Ecologies of Globalization, 1550–1719 (2015), Break Up the Anthropocene (2019), several edited collections, and many articles on maritime literature and the environmental humanities. In his latest book and the subject of this interview, Ocean, part of Bloomsbury’s Object Lessons series, Mentz gives a thoughtful explanation of the subjects, concerns, and language of the blue humanities in a poetically engaged and accessible form.
NATHEN R. STROHMEYER: What first drew you to the blue humanities?
STEVE MENTZ: I have two answers, since the structural pattern of Ocean is that all things are two things. First, I come to this project as a reader, writer, and professor of literature who has been reading stories about the sea since I was a boy. The field of the blue humanities represents a project that tries to organize and synthesize the place of the ocean in our cultural imaginations. My own scholarly expertise focuses on English and American literature, mostly over the past 500 years. I came in particular to stories of shipwreck via the long tradition of narrative romance, from the Odyssey to Shakespeare and beyond. That tradition covers a lot of space on library shelves, but a relatively narrow band of the human history of the ocean.
Second, I come to the blue humanities as an open-water swimmer and every-day salt-water immerser. (At least when the water of Long Island Sound is warm enough — right now it’s in the low 40s; I swim when it gets up to 60, between May and November.) In recent years, I’ve been collaborating with swim-artists like Vanessa Daws, who did the drawings for Ocean, as well as with academics. I hope that some of the practical impress of water on skin comes through in the pages of the book.
What do the blue humanities bring to ecocriticism, and what can they do for us and our blue planet in the Anthropocene?
I’ve been thinking a lot about the green, terrestrial bias in environmentalism and the environmental humanities, and wanting to supplement that.
We do live on land, after all.
Right. I’m not really trying to get rid of any of the “green” titans with whom I joust a bit. I still enjoy Aldo Leopold, John Muir, and Henry David Thoreau — even if I also think we could find more room for Rachel Carson, Jacques Cousteau, and other water-lovers. But I do think that as sea levels rise, hurricanes and other storms become more powerful and destructive, and climate change generally makes our global climate more dynamic and unpredictable, we have a useful archive of stories to help us understand hostile environments in the history of maritime literature, rather than pastoral or agricultural narratives. So as our planet gets bluer — as the sea rises and floods our coastal cities — we will benefit from a blue humanities perspective.
Less Mad Max, more Waterworld.
So many of us live on the coast. Many modern cities — like those that were built by the empires of the 17th and 18th centuries — are on the coast, and a lot of them are going to be impacted heavily by climate change. New Orleans and Miami are two great American examples.
As a New Orleanian, I’ve put a lot of thought into the possibility of being underwater myself. On the subject of a place like New Orleans: Ocean presents the blue humanities as a way forward for environmentalist thought. But what about those spaces that do not easily fit into the binary of land and sea, like the vital but deteriorating Louisiana wetlands?
I love the idea of a “mud” or brown humanities. In fact, I wrote up some thoughts along those lines in my “Brown” chapter in Jeffrey Cohen’s 2013 book Prismatic Ecology. On the practical side, I also live near an expanse of salt marsh in coastal Connecticut, and I’m a board member of the Branford Land Trust which, among other things, tries to buy (or receive donations of) small parcels of marsh that we maintain and keep out of commercial development. There’s no question that the survival of coastal communities depends on cultivating a good relationship with wetlands.
I’ve also been thinking recently about water as a multi-phase object, which humans encounter not only as the vast salt sea — even though that’s where most of our planet’s water is — but also as fresh water, as ice, and even as water vapor. Ocean is mostly about salt water, but each of these other phases or kinds of water might have its own poetic and physical structures that would be worth exploring. I believe Margaret Cohen has written about the “brown water” poetics of rivers, which I also consider when thinking about Mark Twain.
And what about the vibrant and often ignored ecological diversity and importance of deserts, environments defined by their lack of liquid water?
I’m sympathetic too to the idea of a desert humanities, though here in always rainy Connecticut I have less of a personal feel for it. Obviously desert populations are vulnerable to drought, which is a corollary problem to flood, but the ocean itself is in many ways a desert too. Most of the deep sea, particularly near the surface, is poor in resources. Fish are caught in particular places and times of year, but the deep sea functions as a desert — you have to bring your own food and water while you’re there.
You mentioned that the pattern of Ocean is that all things are two things, and its first chapter reflects this. In it, you define an academic opposition between the “core” camp, those who vehemently believe the primordial waters originated from below the planetary surface, and the “alien camp,” those who believe they originated from cometary impacts. Must it really be one way or the other?
Almost certainly it’s not; almost certainly it’s both in different proportions. I gave a version of that chapter as a talk at an interdisciplinary conference in Utah, and the scientists present all admitted that it was probably both. Comets do strike the planet, and do have ice on them, but there was probably also ice stored in the crust of the early earth. In that way, the either-or-ness of it is the metaphorical part of all things being two, even though it being both is the more accurate picture of reality. But I do think it’s difficult for us to conceive of both at once.
The historically tense competition between academic camps also makes a compelling narrative of opposition.
Yes, but it also illuminates a fact about the ways we choose to interpret the ocean: as particularly alien when it seems hostile.
Since it’s hard to avoid the topic of contagion right now, what are your thoughts regarding the sea as a vector of disease? It seems wherever we go at sea, sickness is sure to follow, from plague-ridden medieval merchantmen to the disaster of the Columbian exchange to quarantined cruise liners.
A lot of earlier pandemics, particularly the arrival of Afro-Eurasian diseases to the Americas during the 16th century that wiped out many Native American populations, were driven by sea travel. I’m not certain about the land- versus sea-travel vectors of the Black Plague, but I suspect there’s an argument about the 1918 Spanish Flu, which I think originated among American servicemen shipping over to Europe to fight in World War I, as also ocean-vectored. It’s possible that COVID-19 moves more through airplanes than boats, as globalization in the 20th and 21st centuries has shifted from sea to air.
Ships themselves are instructive miniature worlds in the current context too, from the US aircraft carrier that’s now disembarking sick sailors on Guam to the cruise ship that was denied a berth in south Florida. Lifeboat ethics tend to be ugly. On the one hand, lifeboat ethics present a case study in supposedly absolutely scarce resources — you have to eat the person who dies first. Though sometimes lots may have been drawn, historically it was often that the strong preyed on the weak. The ship, in many ways like an island, a miniaturized ecology with impermeable barriers. There is a limited amount of resources, people, and space. And in many ways, this sets up a lot of false economic lessons, because most spaces are not like this.
Environmentalism is often divided (perhaps stereotypically) into either technocratic futurism or reactionary primitivist camps. In your book, you say that in response to the changing landscape caused by modern cargo shipping practices we must “learn to love, see, and touch these alien futures.” Can you talk about what that means, and why we need to do so?
It’s fascinating to respond to this question now, when hundreds or maybe thousands of massive cargo tankers are sitting idle somewhere in eastern Asia. Or maybe they are getting back to work now? It’s hard to know. It’s an imperative that I believe in fully, but the trick is that I don’t know exactly what it will mean.
You do call them alien futures, after all.
Yes. In considering our need to love the new containerized sea, I’m trying to envision a version of the blue imagination that isn’t concentrated on sailing ships or nostalgia, but instead looks squarely at the face of the ocean today — which means, for reasons I explore in the book, the metal containers in which our industrial world’s products circle the oceans. The poetics of sailing ships remains alluring, though, and I’ve seen a few fantasy mock-ups of modern sail and solar-powered cargo ships, which could ply the waves in a post-carbon future.
I also point to jellyfish often. Many creatures don’t do well in the acidification we’re causing in the environment; coral reefs don’t like it, most fish don’t like it, but it’s a paradise for jellyfish. So in many ways, the future’s ocean is an ocean of jellyfish, and while I don’t like getting stung by jellyfish more than anyone else, I think of sharing the sea with them as part of the imperative.
In a way, it seems that human actions are causing new ecologies to form, which are no more or less worthy of protection than the ecologies which already existed.
Exactly. There’s a healthy version of adaptation to these futures that is possible, and a version that is very painful.
On the subject of future adaptation, in Ocean you also talk about the decline of the sailor and of sailing itself, and the rise of the swimmer as an individualistic counterpoint. Is there space for the sailor to reemerge, or for some other figure to displace the swimmer as the defining figure of our contact with the ocean?
I know that for very many people the sailor is not at all dead. I’m personally fascinated with the idea of the solitary swimmer, even though I recognize the powerful need for fictions of collectivity, of the sort that the sailor and the ship have long represented. There are non-individualistic conceptions of swimming being advanced by some artists and writers, though I think the main thrust of swim-writing from people such as Charles Sprawson, Lynne Cox, James Hamilton-Paterson, or Leanne Shapton tends toward solitude and perhaps even solipsism. We swimmers are Ishmaels dreaming on the masthead, having at least temporarily forgotten the Ahabs who rule the quarterdeck far below.
That said, there may well be a place for a sailing collectivity that, unlike Ahab’s whaleship, isn’t fascistic or bent on destroying the nonhuman environment. If we assume that the ship of state is currently under stress and likely to suffer a series of more or less destructive wrecks — on the reefs of climate change, COVID-19, the elections of inadequate “captains” — it might become important to learn to rebuild ships while also keeping them afloat. Such a project might require the resources of sailors and swimmers both.
Nathen R. Strohmeyer is a New Orleans–based writer and creative, whose work centers on sci-fi and fantasy literature, environmentalism, and classical studies. He is also the writer and co-creator of the web comic Twin Systems (theduckwebcomics.com/Twin_Systems).