CFP, Leeds IMC 2020

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Medieval Ecocriticisms is making its bi-annual call for papers! We have convened sessions at the IMC in both Kalamazoo and Leeds for a few years now. At Leeds last month, Mike Bintley and Michael J. Warren organised and chaired panels on eco-materiality and intersectionality. This time round we’re throwing things wide open: all topics relating to the environmental humanities are very welcome: ecocriticism, environmentalism, animal studies, ecofeminism, materialism, landscape studies …

Next year Medieval Ecocriticisms will be publishing the first issue of its flagship self-titled journal with Arc Humanities Press. This will be a special themed issue on weather in medieval writing and culture. Thereafter, themed issues will alternate with general issues which aim to be as interdisciplinary and inclusive as possible. Our IMC panels are important forums for potential future material, so anyone submitting an abstract for 2020 may like to consider the possibility of publishing with us too.

Please submit abstracts of no more than 300 words to Mike Bintley (michael.bintley@bbk.ac.uk) and Michael J. Warren (mj_warren@outlook.com) by Friday 6th September.

Spirits of Place: Birds in English Place-Names

Post by Michael J. Warren

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I’m currently writing a trade book on birds, nature and place in our medieval past. It’s a nature book as a much as a work about medieval literature and culture. The narrative takes me all over Britain, exploring how people understood and connected to the natural world in the Middle Ages. Currently, I’m on home turf in Kent writing about birdy towns and villages (including my home town, Cranbrook). I hope to post something of what I’ve produced soon, but for now, here’s a blog post on the subject of birds in place names that I wrote at the end of last year for Boydell and Brewer: https://boydellandbrewer.com/blog/world-literature/spirits-of-place-birds-in-english-place-names/

Interview on Birds in Medieval Poetry

Post by Michael J. Warren

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Bit of a cheat post this one, but Boydell have recently published an interview they conducted with me on my book. You can simply click here for the text, or read it below. Hope you enjoy!

Thank you for assisting our discussion of your wonderful title, Dr Warren. To begin, could you tell us a little about how you came to write this book, which is now the second in our new series Nature and Environment in the Middle Ages. What first drew you to the natural world in literature? 
When I decided to return to medieval studies after some years in teaching, it was an obvious choice for me to pursue a subject that combined a personal love of mine with literature. I knew that there was plenty to say about birds, in fact, because I’d written on this subject for my undergraduate dissertation a number of years before. Medieval literature is full of birds, and it seemed strange to me that no one had yet produced a full study examining how they are represented and what their significance is, or at least not one that seriously considered the presence and relevance of ornithological interests, rather than simply birds’ totemic aspects. Birds—as just one, conspicuous set of species in the natural world—were clearly of profound interest to medieval thinkers and writers, and I wanted to explore how and why. So that’s how it all began, but the project inevitably took on much bigger proportions for me as it progressed.

Do animals receive enough attention in medieval scholarship? 
I think it’s more a question of do they receive the right sort of attention. Animals haven’t been ignored in medieval scholarship, but there is a long tradition of thinking that medieval poets weren’t really interested in actual species themselves; it was what they meant that was important. Birds, specifically, have always received short shrift in ornithological histories, which tend to deal with Aristotle, and then skip to the 16th century. The medieval chapter in these histories is always by far and away the shortest—it’s a respectful nod to the more familiar textual references that exist, and which suggest that birds must have been observed on some level, but the popular attitude, at least, is that medieval people ‘knew little about birds, and cared even less’ (Stephen Moss, A Bird in a Bush: A Social History of Birdwatching).

With the spike in 21st century ecological sensibilities, though, there has been a revolution right across disciplines. Ecocriticism and animal studies have achieved considerable popularity and influence in medieval scholarship over the last decade, striving to emphasise the reality of nonhuman creatures in life and text, and demonstrate that how medieval people thought about the natural world and their relationship to it was much more complex and diverse than we have previously thought. So yes, I do think animals are receiving the right sort of attention in medieval scholarship now, but there’s still some way to go (if you look at how many panels there on nonhuman topics at the big medieval congresses each year in Kalamazoo and Leeds compared to other more traditional topics, there is a very striking disparity).

Your book discusses a rich span of poetry, from Anglo Saxon texts through to Chaucer and Gower. Do you have a favourite? 
I do have a particular fondness for The Seafarer. There’s something about the early Christian asceticism and the tempestuous seascape in which this plays out that really appeals to me; I suppose it chimes with my love of bleak, people-less spaces, like marshes. There is something so affecting and powerful about the intimate linking of the exile and the wild nonhuman, and the fact that birds are a conspicuous part of the environment and the Seafarer’s experience is fascinating to me. Seabirds are especially compelling to us humans I think, being that that they are perfectly at home in a location so alien and hostile to us—their mysterious experience is what, paradoxically, makes them such rich metaphors. I’m sure this must have genuinely been the case for those monastics seeking solitude and hardship on remote Atlantic islands like Skellig. If you’ve ever visited locations like this you’ll know you just can’t avoid the raucous presence of seabirds!

How did you come to settle on this particular selection? Did you have many to choose from? 
There are so many texts to choose from, especially if you move outside European traditions and consider, e.g., Arabic or Persian texts as well. I chose only English texts because I was interested in representations of native British wild birds, and because I purposefully wanted to bring new perspectives to much-studied poems by revealing and exploring their intricate and knowledgeable depictions of birds. These birds have received attention before now, but I wanted to take this further—to look at how the ornithological elements might be part of the wider thematic interests of the texts. There is also a subsidiary thread to the book which seeks to fill in some of those gaps about medieval ornithological knowledge, for which it was useful to survey the whole span of the Middle Ages.

What place, if any, did birds hold in the everyday lives of people in the Middle Ages? 
As for the everyday lives of most people, it’s very hard to know. The surviving texts of the medieval age, of course, were not written by or for, and can’t be said to represent the ‘everyday lives’ of, most people. But the written evidence does imply that for intellectual or elite milieux, at least, birds had a diverse and important status in all sorts of ways ranging from the practical to the philosophical: food, quills, hunters (and quarry) in falconry, caged songbirds, intriguing comparative subjects in theories about voice and music, allegories in bestiaries, subjects of ‘special mention’ in encyclopaedias (Bartholomew the Englishmen). In poetry, of course, birds became elevated metaphors for a whole variety of subjects, but what I aim to do in the book is show how knowledge of real birds and species (the ‘everyday’ if you like) still important in informing how these metaphors work.

Beyond this, though, it is possible to get a feel for how birds must have played a part in vernacular lore and discourses. Old English names for birds, for instance, suggest remarkable degrees of observation and listening, and their presence in Anglo-Saxon place names or charter boundaries conveys how they were acknowledged as important elements of environment (‘take the path left past the pond where the coal tit lives’, sort of thing), and there is no reason to believe that much of this didn’t descend from or wasn’t shared by your ordinary man and woman living and working in the natural world where birds are. There is no doubt that wild birds generally were much more plentiful in the Middle Ages; our modern ‘baseline’ perception is heavily distorted because we live in a world where pretty much all species, but particularly groups like farmland birds, have dramatically declined due to modern industrial practices.

Expanding on the last question, why would the presence of birds in poetry have appealed to a medieval poet or audience? 
Beyond what I’ve suggested above, I think the overall thing for me is that birds are such consummate and enigmatic transformers. They complicate, escape and thwart human attempts to categorise—something I pick up on with particular reference to the Exeter Book Riddles in the book. Birds, in life and in poetry, always seems to be in some sort of ‘trans’ status and I think this has a lot to do with why they were (and are) so compelling. David Wallace has eloquently said in his recent book on Chaucer that medieval conceptions of the human condition engaged the ‘perilous art’ of aligning ‘bawdy bodies and stargazing intelligences’. From this perspective, it’s not hard to see why birds were illuminating parallels—they are animals below human status in one sense, and yet occupy the ethereal heights above humans as well; they are both mundane and numinous at once.

A captivating aspect of your volume is the depiction of everyday birds and how their reality is used and transformed into metaphor. What’s your favourite example? Again, I’m drawn to the alien, pelagic qualities of the seabirds in The Seafarer which the poet aligns with the solitary speaker, but perhaps one of the most interesting examples is the owl in The Owl and the Nightingale. Part of the poem’s sophisticated comedy, for me, is that the ‘realities’ of the eponymous birds are consistently (and knowingly, on the part of the author) confused, which causes problems when these particular qualities are transposed into metaphorical use in texts like the popular bestiaries. So, when the nightingale attacks the owl’s day-blindness (which becomes a well-known metaphor for the sinner who cannot or refuses to see the light of Christ), we are aware that profound moral ‘truths’ are being drawn up on false premises: the owl states herself in the poem that this particular ‘truth’ about owls is just plain wrong.

This book clearly demonstrates a real love for birds. Are you an avid birder yourself? 
I certainly am. I birdwatch a lot in Kent where I live, particularly on the marshes up in the north of the county. It was my uncle who got me into birding when I was very young, and it’s his photos, in fact, that illustrate the book, including the striking image of flying godwits on the front cover.

Of course, you don’t need to be a birdwatcher to write about birds in medieval poetry, but I do think it has helped attune me to various nuances, such as the importance of sound or accurate observation in Old English bird names, or the ornithological aspects of certain species that clash with allegorical treatments.

What are you working on now, or will you be working on next? 
Still birds! I was approached by a publisher some years back whilst writing my PhD about the possibility of producing a trade version of my thesis. So, now the monograph is finished up, I’m turning my attention to this new project. It will take some of the informative, ornithological elements of the monograph and weave these into a nature/travel-writing narrative. The first chapter is set on the Essex Marshes, particularly concerning a place called Foulness Island, to explore Old English place names, and how birds, but also the natural world more generally, are intimately observed and become a part of human conceptions of place.

 

The miraculous mimicry of a jay

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Post by Michael J. Warren

Yesterday I was very pleased to receive these in the post:

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It’s been too long since I last wrote something for this site, so I think the advent of my book’s publication is an appropriate excuse to offer a sneaky preview into one of its chapters. Here, then, is a little something based on a small part of chapter two, which is all about transforming trickster birds in the Exeter Book Riddles.

In recent years there has been a great deal of focus on birds’ remarkable vocal abilities as a particularly useful, fabulous and convincing example of the heterogeneous and sophisticated identities and cognitive capabilities of nonhuman species. In both academic and popular forums, birds’ songs and calls are well publicized and studied for the purposes of illuminating nonhuman brilliance and, importantly, downplaying human exceptionalism, which for too long has enjoyed a monopoly on all paradigms for thinking about ecological relations: humans are rational and have sophisticated language, making us axiomatically, unquestionably superior and entitled. This year, as it happens, is the ‘Year of the Bird‘ for the National Geographic. Their range of articles has sought to celebrate the colourful diversity of bird life. One focuses specifically on birds’ cognitive abilities, exploring how ingenious, imaginative and calculating some species can be.

Not surprisingly, corvids feature pretty heavily in the article. It’s well-known that corvids–as far as we know anyway–top the smart bird charts because of their comparatively large forebrains with densely packed neurons (a raven’s forebrain is a whopping 80% of its whole brain mass). In the article, an eight-year-old girl named Gabi has befriended American crows visiting her garden who habitually bring her gifts. Corvid species, more than any other genus of bird, have demonstrated all sorts of remarkable functions (see here, here and here–for a bit of fun!) that parallel the ‘unique’ capabilities that supposedly set humans above other creatures.

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Jackdaw. Source at pxhere.

Recognition and understanding of corvid genius is by no means new, of course. It’s just that scientific studies now are proving the hunches or proverbial lore that has surrounded these species for millennia. As for the Middle Ages, there’s plenty of evidence that people knew about and marvelled at corvid capabilities. There’s Chaucer’s Manciple’s crow, of course, in a lugubrious tale of storytelling, deceit and language. The gift-giving crows in Morell’s article above might also remind readers of Cuthbert’s encounters with ravens, or Guthlac’s interactions with jackdaws.

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Corvids bringing lard to Cuthbert. Source: MS Yates Thompson 26.

If anything, though, it is the corvid propensity for mimicking that most struck medieval scholars and poets. In a way, the crow was a bird right at the centre of grammar debates on rational and irrational (articulata and inarticulata) voices, it’s characteristic call often depicted to illustrate a nonhuman sound that can be written down (‘cra cra’) but which is meaningless. Except, of course, a crow’s ‘cra cra’ can be written down and has discrete pitches, and thus is meaningful in some sense. Moreover, it can mimic, doubling its ability for producing discrete utterances (a fact grammarians were at pains to explain away). In short, corvid voices could do as much to trouble vocal boundaries established to shore up human superiority as they could to confirm them.

It’s this aspect of avian brilliance that particularly appealed to me about Exeter Book Riddle 24, which features as one of three riddles on which I focus in chapter two of Birds in Medieval English Poetry. The solution to Riddle 24 is definitely a corvid species, because the speaker tells us so: the runic code spells out higoræ (Old English for jay or magpie, though jay is most often given).

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The Riddle focuses directly on the jay’s voice–the bird itself gives a virtuosic display of mimicking ability. The context of the riddle form itself, though, with its witty combination of revelation and obfuscation creates a marvellous platform for this bird to play havoc with the boundaries of species’ voices. Here’s the Riddle itself:

Ic eom wunderlicu wiht,     wræsne mine stefne,
hwilum beorce swa hund,     hwilum blæte swa gat,
hwilum græde swa gos,     hwilum gielle swa hafoc,
hwilum ic onhyrge      þone haswan earn,
guðfugles hleoþor,      hwilum glidan reorde
muþe gemæne,      hwilum mæwes song,
þær ic glado sitte.     . ᚷ. mec nemnað,
swylce . ᚫ. ond . ᚱ.      . ᚩ. fullesteð,
. ᚻ. ond . ᛁ .     Nu ic haten eom
swa þa siex stafas      sweotule becnaþ.
(Riddle 24)

[I am a wondrous creature. I vary my voice: sometimes bark like a dog, sometimes bleat like a goat, sometimes honk like a goose, sometimes yell like a hawk, sometimes I mimic the ashy eagle—cry of the warbird—sometimes the kite’s voice I speak with my mouth, sometimes the gull’s song, where I sit gladly. G they name me, also Æ and R. O helps, H and I. Now I am called as these six letters clearly indicate.]

There were certainly classical models for talking corvids, and some of these must have been known to Anglo-Saxon writers. Martial’s remarks on the magpie (pica) were certainly known through Isidore of Seville’s depiction of the bird: ‘if you did not see me, you would deny that I am a bird’ (Etymologies., XII.vii.46). The point here, of course, is that the bird is such a good mimic that one needs to actually have the bird in sight to confirm that it is indeed a bird.[1]

Sources like Isidore were almost certainly an influence upon the poet responsible for Riddle 24, but there is also no reason to doubt that Anglo-Saxon observers did come across real-life examples of mimicking corvids. The birds’ abilities are certainly no poetic exaggeration. Jays, for instance, have a repertoire that can encompass a wide range of other bird species, ‘and … motorbike horn, human voice, whistled songs, barking dog, and (probably) lawnmower’.[2] (I think here of the well-known clip of the lyrebird mimicking man-made sounds on David Attenborough, and here is a jay calling like a buzzard, as in Riddle 24). Whatever the case, what sets the Riddle apart is its particularly clever and sensitive treatment of mimicry which seems to suggest an interest in nonhuman capabilities for both complicating and obscuring knowledge (and knowledge, after all, or the tantalizing acquisition of possible knowledge, is what the Riddles offer to readers, superficially anyway).

The jay in Riddle 24 redoubles and collapses metaphors to articulate a perpetual movement between likeness and difference that correlates riddling strategies with species classifications: in the same way that literal and metaphorical modes are blurred, so are the markers of species. A mimicking bird is the perfect subject to convey the slippery nuances involved in identifying species because it can convincingly incorporate the trademark voices of other creatures (even inanimate ‘species’–a lawnmower!) into its vocal range in a way that at least seems to transfer likeness towards something that is uncannily the same, even indistinguishable. Outright, the jay presents itself as swa ‘like’ other creatures, and the fact that it imitates birds and mammals can hardly be accidental—the correlations between species oscillate more closely between near-kind and not so near. The question of metaphor is right up front here: the jay’s voice is only like a goat’s, but at the same time this is not a human-imposed conceit. The jay does genuinely imitate the animal in the way only some birds can.

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A jay (gai). Source: Sherborne Missal (British Library, Add MS 74236).

There is another valence to contend with, involving the onomatopoeic utterances of those creatures the jay mimics (beorce, blæte, græde, gielle). These words are, of course, contrived human signifiers, albeit ones that aim for authenticity. Despite the fact, then, that the human subject is not included in the jay’s repertoire, human vocalizations do appear in other forms, through onomatopoeic representations. The poem’s runes are the other obvious way. The jay has another trick, however, that turns our careful decoding back on itself so that human language is presented not as a simple superimposition that anthropomorphizes the bird, but as part of the jay’s own voice all along. Dieter Bitterli has noted before now that the runes ‘extend the catalogue of the jay’s mimicry to the realm of human language’.[3] But the appropriation occurs even without these symbols. It is easy enough, particularly given the characteristic prosopopoeia of Anglo-Saxon riddles, to assume anthropomorphism. Once we remember that we are dealing with no ordinary bird here, though, but one that is renowned for mimicking even the human voice, the boundaries change again—the human speaker reciting the poem can very plausibly be one of the many voices adopted by the jay itself, thus craftily integrating the human voice that at first sight seems to be absent from the catalogue. The jay is not personified, but is actually speaking the poem. If we take this to be the case, then Isidore’s etymological association of the poet and the jay is fully realised: the riddler or performer and the jay consume each other’s voices.[4]

The jay, with its human-like vocal abilities, is the most pointedly transformative of all birds in the collection because its own hide-and-seek game imitates riddling strategies. Both require us to revise continually what we think we know, or what we think we have safely defined.

[1] For a selection of other classical sources dealing with mimicking birds, see Jeremy Mynott, Birds in the Ancient World: Winged Words (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), pp. 143-9.

[2] Stanley Cramp, gen. ed., Birds of the Wester Palearctic, 9 vols (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977-94), vol. 8, pp. 19-20.

[3] Dieter Bitterli, Say What I Am Called: The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book and the Anglo-Latin Tradition (Toronto, Buffalo and London: University of Toronto Press, 2009), p. 97.

[4] ‘The magpie (pica), as if the word were ‘poetic’ (poetica), because they pronounce words with a distinct articulation, like a human’; Etym., XII.vii.46.

Restatement of values and commitment

Statement from Heide Estes, founder and co-director of Medieval Ecocriticisms
At a time when medieval studies as a discipline is in transition, and has the opportunity to become a larger discipline welcoming a broader range of approaches and methods, Medieval Ecocriticisms reaffirms its commitment to inclusivity, openness and transparency. We welcome scholarship by people of color, people with disabilities, and people of diverse sexual and gender orientations, as well as at all academic ranks. We recognize that ecocriticisms in general, and medieval ecocriticisms in particular, can be a global field, not one centered on Europe.

We were very pleased happy to sign the letter of concern to the Congress committee at Kalamazoo and even more pleased to see that Jana Schulman, Director of the Medieval Institute, has responded favourably. As Julie Orlemanski has said, much work remains to be done, but this is certainly a positive step. We will continue to be a part of this discussion, and others that confront our discipline in the future.

Medieval Ecocriticisms CFPs for Leeds 2019

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Call for papers: Ecotheory, Text, Object (Leeds IMC 1-4 July 2019 ‘Materialities’)
Sponsor:
Medieval Ecocriticisms
Organisers: Mike Bintley (Birkbeck, University of London) and Michael J. Warren (Royal Holloway, University of London)

Ecotheory, ecocriticism, and other object-oriented approaches to the study of the Middle Ages have gained significant traction in recent years, with works increasingly addressing the relationship between textual and material objects as evidence of human interactions with nature and environment.

This panel welcomes proposals for 20-minute papers that examine the relationship between texts and objects – both conceived of in their broadest possible terms – from ecocritical and ecotheoretical perspectives. We particularly welcome co-presentation or co-authorship of papers on common themes, texts, or objects from collaborators working across disciplines, historical periods, languages, and cultures. Possible topics and approaches include but are not restricted to:
– correlations and disjunctions between textual and material environments
– representations and use of non-human animals, vegetation, and other materials
as ‘resources’
– investigations of texts and objects that consciously interrogate their own
material origins
– anachronic and transhistorical juxtapositions of medieval/contemporary
attitudes to textuality/materiality
– ecologies and queer ecologies of the im/material in medieval cultures

Please send titles and brief abstracts to Mike Bintley at medievalecocriticisms@outlook.com by 31st August.


 

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Call for papers: Connecting Ecocriticism: Intersectionality in Environmental Thinking (Leeds IMC 1-4 July 2019)
Sponsor: Medieval Ecocriticisms
Organisers: Mike Bintley (Birkbeck, University of London) and Michael J. Warren (Royal Holloway, University of London)

With ecocriticism’s steady popularity in medieval studies, our understandings of environmental subjects and relations in pre-modern thinking and practices have changed and developed profoundly. One facet that has been present within these endeavours from the start—and now recommends an important direction for the field—has been the capacity for ecological approaches to reveal and parallel depictions and treatments of the nonhuman world with those of other abused minority subjects. With increasing strife in global political arenas in recent years affecting vulnerable and excluded individuals and groups, the need for intersectionality within ecocritical fields which amplifies the diverse voices of marginalised and misrepresented subjects and parties whose narratives converge is never more imperative.

This panel requests 20-min papers which take up eco- or environmental approaches to reveal intersections and parallels between marginalised subjects (broadly construed), both human and nonhuman. Possible topics and approaches include but are not restricted to:
– Interdisciplinary/crossover approaches to environmental topics: ecocriticism,
ecofeminism, disability studies, gender studies, race studies
– Intersecting bodies/identities (human and nonhuman)
– Intersecting subjects (e.g., gender and nature; race and the nonhuman)
– Thing/object-orientated theories: revisions and treatments of
objects/materials in the light of ecological perspectives

Please send titles and brief extracts to Michael J. Warren at medievalecocriticisms@outlook.com by 31st August.

Medieval Weathers – A Symposium on Meteorological Phenomena in Medieval Writing and Culture

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Post by Michael J. Warren

Excited to say that Corinne and I are launching registration for our symposium on weather in medieval writing and culture at King’s College London on 7th July. We’re really excited to have keynote addresses from Marilina Cesario and our very own Medieval Ecocriticisms’ founder, Heide Estes.

Here is the program, and registration is on Eventbrite here. Fee, including lunch and refreshments, is £24.03. Registration deadline is Saturday 26th May.

Seats are limited for the venue (Anatomy Theatre), so we encourage people to register early!

 

The Plastic Plight of Seabirds: Thinking about Environmental Criticism

Post by Michael J. Warren

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In the last two years I’ve done quite a bit of thinking and writing about seabirds in early culture—specifically, their presence in Anglo-Saxon ecosystems; in ascetic contemplations of lonely, watery journeys towards unknown horizons where seabirds are fellow migrants in life’s great pilgrimage; as powerful co-inhabitants of coastal habitats (see here and here). I’m currently researching the topic further for a chapter in a trade book about birds and place in early English history. There is no doubt that our medieval ancestors noticed seabirds as particular species, and gave them cultural significance just as much as we do.

My research and writing on the subject, though, often gives me pause for thought, because despite similar imaginative responses to these remarkable creatures across time, my experiences with seabirds in my own time are disturbingly and drastically different in ways that must profoundly and irrevocably affect their cultural relevance to us, and would be unimaginably alien to our medieval ancestors. The picture of environmental destruction that afflicts seabirds is a uniquely modern picture: in the twenty first century we cannot think about seabirds without confronting how they are tied up, quite literally, with our detritus. The poet who depicts a gannet in the Old English The Seafarer as a far-travelling companion on the winter waves could not have conceived of the strangulated individual in the harrowing image above.

In particular, of course, I’m talking about plastic, and the gargantuan quantities of enduring waste it produces. It’s such an unavoidable aspect of daily life that we barely give the substance a second thought, and we don’t need to. We can legitimately throw away as much of the stuff as we want, confident that it will be disposed of somewhere else, by someone we don’t know or care about. That’s the situation the ‘progress’ of convenient, comfortable living has led to; we aren’t required to care or take responsibility. To be sure, most of us know we should care, and most of us use local schemes to recycle as best we can, or avoid using plastic bags when we go shopping. What most of us could never have guessed is just how pervasive plastic and its disastrous effects are when we think we’ve safely discarded it. Without even considering the devastating effects on all the other creatures that inhabit the world’s oceans, it is estimated now that 90% of the world’s seabirds have consumed plastic (many fatally).

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The contents of a decayed albatross carcass. Image: Algalita.org.

Last year when I was building the current website for Medieval Ecocriticisms, I read a post from Heide (Estes) whilst I was transferring material from the old blog (see ‘Teaching Environmental Issues after the Election’ here). I was struck by one paragraph in particular which neatly and poignantly expresses to her students the purpose and value of teaching and writing about the natural world. Heide notes that

teaching environmental criticism is not … just an intellectual exercise. It is an explicit act of resistance and activism. In asking you to think about how the people of medieval England wrote about the natural world in literary and documentary texts, and their own relationships with animals and the environment, as well as with other human beings, I have also been asking you to think about contemporary ideas about the environment.

 I’ve thought a good deal about this message in recent months. My wife and I decided last November to go plastic and packaging free in 2018. We want to implement habits and routines that we can progressively make a way of life. We know the realities—avoiding plastic entirely from your life is pretty much impossible unless you want to completely cut yourself loose from modernity. We’ve done our research though, and have embarked on a scheme to dramatically cut down what we throw into landfill at the end of this year. (Later on in 2018 I’ll post again on this topic to let you know what we’ve done and how it’s going!)

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A UK landfill site. Ironically, these mounds of waste have become beneficial for some seabirds, gulls, who have adapted to become urban dwellers. Image from edie.

I have been delighted to discover along the way that there are communities and individuals out there, in both the UK and the US, who are doing the same thing. Indeed, the tide seems to be swelling: Blue Planet II has apparently really caught the public attention on issues of plastic; China has put the cat among the pigeons by rejecting imported plastic from the UK from this year; and only days ago Theresa May has made the headlines by discussing ambitions to force the big UK supermarkets to rethink packaging.

I’m excited by our environmental ambitions for this year: they feel real, proactive, and loaded with genuine potential to actually make a personal difference. Heide’s words resonated, though, because they prompted me to consider more fully than before the significance and necessity of ecocritical thinking and writing. My work on seabirds in Old English texts has seemed arcane, irrelevant and isolated to me at times. But in some small yet important way, the study of how seabirds were experienced and represented in the earliest English writings does matter to our engagement with these creatures now, and their plight, even if only because we might be prompted to a keener sense of loss and responsibility. It is a part of the narrative, the ‘explicit act of resistance’ Heide mentions. To understand the sensitivities, realities and nuances of how humans engaged with the nonhuman world in the past is to understand where our legacies have come from, why they must be changed, how they can offer forgotten or overlooked perspectives to assess where ‘progress’ may have gone awry, or where we might have got it wrong about pre-modern attitudes.

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Plastic debris drifts from the ocean into this bay in the Philippines. Image: Erik de Castro.

Conducting this research and teaching the diversity of ecocritical topics is truly an activist engagement. It is part of the passion and urgency we share to influence the way people think about, encounter and treat the natural world, to better understand the full complexity of the ways in which humans have, do and should best cohabit the earth with fellow beings. We do this, always, with the hope of making just a little, positive difference.