Intellectual history

History of Fishing: a Voyage of the Mind into Amphibious Adaptation

By Luna Sarti

In doing research on rivers, one starts to wonder what fish live in the river waters and what role inland fishing has had throughout history in the relationship between the river and its human communities. Finding sources is not that easy, however, and one has to skim through materials such as cookbooks, oral histories, or other forms of personal memories. The few scholars who have dealt with the history of fishing stress, in fact, how fishing has had a very minor role in most official histories because, as Eric Leed puts it in his book The Mind of the Traveler: from Gilgamesh to Global Tourism, we often tend to be unable to “regard place as anything but terrestrial,” mostly assuming that “societies are boundaried, centered, contained, and enduring structures,” which is “a view of history filtered through the results of history” (19). 

History of Fishing. (Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg)

Histories of fishing are more than niche studies tapping into ‘minor’ topics for the purpose of originality. Understanding fishing throughout history is extremely important, if only to prompt one’s own imagination to picture how humans populated the earth by using composite strategies that allowed them to survive through the shifting climates of the Holocene. As Dietrich Sahrhage and Johannes Lundbeck observed in their groundbreaking A History of Fishing, “in contrast to hunting, fishing has, since its inception in prehistoric times, always retained its importance in food production” (2). More recently, inFishing: How the Sea Fed Civilization, Brian Fagan draws on evidence from archaeology, geology, and genetics to show how “a significant intensification of subsistence fishing” occurred across different parts of the world in the period of global warming that followed the Ice Age, which favored the formation of thriving tidal areas and wetlands (73). By presenting a fuller view of how human food practices shifted over time, histories of fishing not only activate new temporalities and an ecological sense in the development of human societies, but also provide very interesting perspectives on strategies of human adaptation in the face of changing environments and rising waters. 

While most historical research is often conceptually associated with the agricultural revolution and the development of state-organized civilizations and cities, thinking about fishing requires a temporality that undoes any distinction between history and prehistory. As a practice, fishing has in fact not only characterized both Homo sapiens and extinct species of the genus Homo, but has also variously co-existed  with societies on the move that practiced foraging and hunting and trading, and with sedentary communities, which increasingly relied on agricultural and animal farming as much as on manufacturing and commerce. More noticeably, as historian Brian Fagan remarks in Fishing: How the Sea Fed Civilization, “the technology used both for subsistence fishing and for catching tens of thousands of anadromous fish, including Pacific salmon and the giant sturgeon of the Danube, has changed little in ten millennia” (11). Artifacts from ‘prehistoric times’ are still recognizable as fishing tools to individuals who are the least socialized in such practices, while others can be deciphered by looking at the tools that were used in fishing communities such as those of the Beringians in Siberia and Alaska, and the Gidjingali in Australia. 

Prehistoric fishing gear, nets, weaving etc. Credit: Wellcome Collection.

It is a fascinating way of thinking that adds significant tools to our kit for the imagination of human pasts and futures. Such a versatile mind is not only highly desirable but also hopefully highly productive in the formation of new generations. 

The Human Shore: Seacoasts in History (Chicago University Press)

Histories of fishing don’t simply activate longer temporalities. By looking at contemporary societies which are still relying on fishing technologies to develop literacy in artifacts from archaeological sites across the globe, in fact, historians of fishing complicate the distinction between the past and the present which is a fundamental asset of linear time. Thus, the continuity of fishing practices across societies beyond the time frame of modernity unsettles the European-born paradigm of progress. As John Gillis writes in The Human Shore: Seacoasts in History, digging into fishing throughout time and space reveals how by being  “trained to think of agriculture as the highest stage of civilization before the advent of the urban-industrial age,” we still tend to place foraging-hunting practices in the category of “the primitive” or, in the best case, in that of “a last resort for the lower classes of society” (14).

Since both the technology and the practices involved in community fishing have been strikingly stable across time and space, histories of fishing draw on anthropological research from the past two centuries to glimpse into a past that would be otherwise inaccessible. In doing so, this “alternative account of global history” -to use Gillis’ wording in The Human Shore– gestures towards the possibility of looking at foraging-hunting not simply as the myth of certain environmentally friendly utopia but as a way of living that is more likely to sustain human existence through the capacity to read the landscape and adapt to its changing features (4). Brian Fagan reports, for example, how a DNA research on the Chumash civilization shows that they had probably settled in the Santa Barbara Channel region thousands of years in the past and suggests that, when the Spaniards arrived in 1542, they found not a ‘primitive society’ but “a highly adaptable and flexible culture that had survived, and usually thrived, in a harsh, drought-prone landscape” (88). Similar stories emerge from other fishing societies that didn’t apply farming or industrial models to fishing, such as the Gidjingali in Australia and the Beringians in Alaska, who were mentioned above.

In spite of centuries of urban dwellers’ bias, practices such as fishing, hunting, and foraging, allow for more flexibility on the side of humans. It’s a way of living that not only requires an intimate knowledge of micro-environments, but also involves a considerable capacity to engage with complex environmental factors. Although reproducing that model is impossible, we can still study and recover some aspects of those practices and of that knowledge.

Swiss prehistoric lake dwellings. as pictorially restored by A. de Mortillet. Wellcome Collection

By focusing on fishing, historians make two narratives–that of history and that of prehistory–which collide. In such a process a new narrative surfaces, one in which some communities that disappeared from history, losing against modern conceptions of progress, might in fact have successfully lived for long spans of time by more successfully adapting their living practices to the shifting behaviors of their local flora, fauna, and waters. By engaging with this uncomfortable narrative, readers are forced to consider whether contemporary strategies of production and urban life might be the unsustainable consequences of failing strategies of adaptation. As a person interested in repairing the damages of extractionist economies, industrial farming, concrete cities, and low efficiency housing, I ponder the question of adaptability that stems from histories of fishing. The thought of people who were living with unstable waters seems fascinating and encouraging.

Perhaps many will argue against such a positive vision of fishing communities and identify elements of  romanticism in the narrative, which carries at times the trace of an idealized perception of otherness. However, the question seems worthy of debate.

Featured Image: Hans Hillewaert. Fishing down the food web, a North Sea perspective. Inspired by the work of Daniel Pauly. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

Think Piece

Acqua Panna: When History Makes Bottled Waters

By Luna Sarti

In their Plastic Water: The Social and Material Life of Bottled Water (MIT Press, 2015), Gay Hawkins, Emily Potter, and Kane Race investigate “how and why branded bottles of water have insinuated themselves into daily life and the implications of this for safe urban water supplies” (xxii). In asking what is at work in the decision to move from drinking from the tap to drinking from the bottle, they advocate for an understanding of market arrangements in relation to consumers who recognize the distinct qualifications surrounding the product while incorporating the product into their world (xxxiii).

Plastic Water (book cover)

Although a diversity of elements and devices have been identified in the making of water into a “fast-moving consumer good” (FMCG), there is some agreement between scholars in identifying narratives of nature, purity, and human health as the key elements in the processes whereby bottled water has been transformed into a FMCG in the last few decades. However, there seems to be an emerging trend in the bottled water business to feature history as a crucial element in  branding their products. Such a shift toward historicity should not be underestimated. Hawkins, Potter, and Race suggest, in fact, that the bottle of water should be approached “as an unfinished or entangled object” whose nature demands careful elaboration (xvi). Using Evian as a case study for bottled spring waters, they discuss how waters become singularized and distinguished by analyzing dynamics captured by processes of rebranding and “the ways in which they generate multidimensional relations that feed back into market processes and shape them in predictable and unpredictable ways” (34). If for a long time it was important to detach the imaginary of bottled waters from human activity and position them on the side of nature by stressing ideal characteristics such as spring waters untouched quality and their  uncontaminated features, one should start wondering why historical dates are increasingly appearing on spring water brands such as Poland Spring, Acqua Panna, and San Pellegrino (all managed by Nestlé Waters).

Since the key issue with water is that it can be turned into a market object in many different ways, it is crucial to pay close attention to the specific historical processes whereby it is “rendered economic” in the sense described by Fabian Muniesa, Yuval Millo and Michel Callon  in their introduction to Market Devices (3). Such a shift towards a historical aura for bottled waters could have interesting implications, particularly for social and historical analyses.

Picture of Acqua Panna’s new 1 L plastic bottle. © 2015 Nestlé

This question first came to my mind when noticing that following the cross-platform campaign that Nestlé Waters North America launched last May, Acqua Panna’s bottle label emphasizes the year 1564, the Italian word for Tuscany (“Toscana”) as well as a stylized fleur de lis, the emblematic symbol of Florence, and – only on the glass bottle- an explicit reference to the Medici family. The year represents such an important detail that it is also impressed in the plastic bottle, whereas the glass bottle has the brand name “San Pellegrino” impressed which replaced “natural spring water” that characterized the old bottle. While for decades water companies tried to construct an imaginary that severed their water products from human interaction, Nestlé Waters seems to be now trying to establish a sense of historicity for Acqua Panna by connecting today’s bottled waters to Florence and the time of the Medici. 

That history represents an important aspect of Acqua Panna’s identity, particularly since its acquisition by Nestlé Waters in the late 1990s, is confirmed when looking at its official website. While traditional informative sections of bottled waters focus on themes such as water quality, mineral content, PH levels, and the water shelf-life, Acqua Panna has included since the early 2000s a section on its history, which is now addressed as the fourth question in their FAQ section for the US website.

FAQS section – 4. What is the history behind Acqua Panna?

“Acqua Panna takes its name from the Villa Panna Estate in Tuscany, a summer estate that was owned by the noble Medici family of Florence. The Medici family were of the most renowned art patrons in history. Their court included some of the most celebrated artists & visionaries including Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Galileo, and Botticelli. The iconic fleur-des-lis symbol was their crest. The Medici family acquired over 3,000 acres of land in Scarperia, Tuscany in order to turn it into an untouched hunting reserve. They officially limited its borders with an act, dating back to 1564.  That decree still exists and guards the land where Acqua Panna flows.” From The US website of Acqua Panna.  © 2015 Nestlé

Certainly, in 1564 the bandita (featured in the gallery below) of Scarperia , which included the villa of Panna and local springs, was transformed into the Duke’s game reserve, thus effectively preventing the local community from accessing the spring water within its borders. However, the Bando focuses on establishing the borders of the reserve, and the Medici never bottled their water nor commercialized it. It was the Marquise Luigi of Torrigiani who acquired the reserve in the 19th century and started bottling and selling Acqua Panna (as Acqua sorgiva di Panna) in Florence.

Using WebArchive it is possible to look at the way in which the historical discourse was reshaped over time. A snapshot of the website taken between August 8, 2013, and July 14, 2014 (featured in the gallery below), shows how Acqua Panna originally featured a proper story line on their website, spanning from Roman times to the year 2006. The story line pinpoints several events for each century. For the 16th century we find the aforementioned establishment of the reserve in 1564 and the construction by the Grand Duke Francesco I of the oratory at Villa Panna in 1572. Moving forward, the timeline includes the image of an extant cabreo documenting the estate in 1792, along with the location of the villa of Panna, and then shifts to the year 1860 when the Marquise of Torrigiani for the first time sold the waters from the estate in Florence in 54-liter demijohns. For the 20th century, there are references to the year 1910, which is highlighted as the year when the Marquise Luigi Torrigiani started to use liter bottles for Acqua Panna, the year 1938, when the Count Contini Bonaccossi who bought the estate from the Torrigiani family founded the “Società Panna”, and then the acquisition of the company by the San Pellegrino Group in 1956, which was later bought by Nestle in 1997. All of these references to events that somehow signal a shift in the commercialization of this water have disappeared in the 2019 rebranding.

As I continue to investigate the complex processes that make the international assemblage that is today Acqua Panna, I ask myself why history is becoming more important to constitute contemporary bottled waters and why a particular history has been selected in the process to singularize Acqua Panna from other waters. Inspired by Plastic Water to rethink packaging as “something that helps bring new realities and practices into being that have socially binding effects” (6), I wonder if this historicization of the label and of bottled waters might be an attempt to play against the growing awareness of what plastic waters mean for our material world. Perhaps, as public discourse around the impact of plastics in marine ecosystems grows and campaigns against bottled waters intensify, it becomes difficult to sustain the association between nature and bottled waters that for so long played a role in the marketing of plastic water. It would make sense then to reshape the narrative around Acqua Panna and place it at the center of the Medici myth. Away from nature, via history, this bottle shapes a time-honored lifestyle.

Luna is a Ph.D. candidate in Italian Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Her research explores the shifting cultures and practices of water that bound the Arno river in Florence. In her dissertation, she analyzes site-specific medieval and early modern narratives of flooding to discuss if, when, and how flood is to be considered a “natural disaster.” 

Featured Image: Acqua Panna website on August 8, 2013. Retrieved via Web Archive on August 12, 2019.  Copyright – 2011 Sanpellegrino S.p.A. © 2015 Nestlé

Think Piece

Rethinking Flood with the Trinity River

By Luna Sarti

Something that always surprises me in the perception of river flooding is how we tend to reduce different floods to recurring iterations of the same phenomenon. Historical river floods are in fact usually evoked by means of the year in which they occurred and in relation to the most noticeable urban area that they affected. On one hand, this way to refer to different floods standardizes each event and effectively erases the heterogeneous causes that contribute to their occurrence. On the other hand, the ‘by-year-label’ allows a low degree of difference which is functional to comparatively measure the magnitude of devastation that each iteration causes. This way of thinking about floods contributes to divert the discussion of how and why each flood takes place towards a more “sensational” narrative, which is typical of “disaster culture” (Robert C. Bell and Robert M. Ficociello). Is a flood just a flood among others? Shouldn’t we learn to reflect on each flood separately?

Aerial View of Flood in Fort Worth in 1949, photograph, May 17, 1949 (accessed June 24, 2019),University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History; courtesy of Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Company, Fort Worth.

The Trinity River in the Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex provides an interesting case for a reflection on river floods. Between 1908 and 1949, in fact, following the occurrence of increasingly severe flooding events, local authorities created a system of levees that will soon be dismantled. According to the Trinity River Vision Authority, in fact, the current levee system is not only inadequate for contemporary flood risk, but prevents the development of river ecology as well as direct access to the river. Launched in 2002 and supervised by the Trinity River Vision Authority, the Trinity River Vision Project promises flood damage reduction, ecological renewal, and opportunities for recreation and development. The project advocates for the Renaissance of local river culture and draws on a “holistic approach to flood protection” in order to safeguard Fort Worth and transform it into a riverfront city.  

The language of the Master Plan prompts a certain level of risk, that of flooding, and at the same time provides us with a well-designed solution that guarantees safety while enhancing beauty. It enables a positive vision of the future that capitalizes on fears of loss caused by uncontrollable events as well as on the feeling of awe that providential technology can inspire. The reference to the theme of “renaissance” seems not coincidental in that in its “holistic” vision the project advocates for a beautified city which redirects the community towards the river as a source for pleasure, entertainment, and relief. Much could be said on this reference. However, what concerns me here is that the Trinity River Vision Authority capitalizes on the tension between an enhanced sense of flood risk and an already-made providential solution without providing an adequate contextualization of flooding. 

Located at the junction of Clear Fork and West Fork of the Trinity River, Fort Worth has experienced several episodes of extreme flooding, most noticeably in 1844, 1866, 1871, 1890, 1908, 1922, 1949 and 1989, while flash flooding is a frequent occurrence. The Plan only includes an introductory remark on the 1949 flood as “a massive flood” that “destroyed much of the city” and continues with “the river reached a depth of 52 feet and a width of 1.5 miles, killing 10 people and leaving 4,000 citizens homeless” (9). However, the Report on Trinity River at Dallas and Fort Worth, presented by the Board of Engineers for Rivers and Harbors on March 11, 1949 provides us with a much more complex scenario for understanding the occurrence of that “massive” flood (Committee on Public Works; id: 11324 H.doc.242). According to the document prepared by the Board of Engineers on March 11, 1949, in fact, the population of Dallas had increased from 295,000 in 1940 to 483,000 at the time, and of Fort Worth from 178,000 to 318,000 (5). The Board of Engineers connected flood risk to this “extraordinary growth” which “accelerated development and utilization of the reclaimed flood-plain lands at both cities for residential, commercial, and industrial purposes” (6). Drainage is thus identified as a significant issue, because existing infrastructures did not seem to be able to sustain both discharge and storm waters. Such a historical reflection allows a more refined understanding of the elements that produce flooding, which is less about nature and devastation, and more about policy and social behaviors.

Video capturing the effects of flooding in  Fort Worth Flood in 1949. More footage on the Texas Archive of the Moving image FWPD Collection.

The plan might well achieve its goals and represent a great solution for certain flooding patterns. However, as is often the case with landscape design and engineering, the solution might also be provisional. The question that remains open is if the plan effectiveness will be reduced by changing rain patterns and how layers of historical interventions will interact with such a future scenario. Reclaimed land, diverted rivers, forgotten creeks, and streams play a crucial role in the patterns that are followed by storm waters. It is not clear if the plan took such history into account, although some aspects seem to be partially informed by a historical perception, particularly in an effort to mimic the river’s original topography. A more systematic historical perspective would enhance important reflections on the interactions between the river and the urban fabric, with its shifting economic and cultural assets. Since the plan already aims to presents the river as a pedagogical site (17), it would be interesting to create learning opportunities that also aim to prompt flood culture as a preventive civic tool.

Engaging with local historical research contributes to enhance a different perception of the site’s present-day configuration and provides people with more accurate tools for developing a sense of flood risk and awareness. River flooding which often occupies the margins of our imagination, and thus rarely activates our sense of risk, has been in fact increasing and is expected to increase even more over the coming years,  according to research presented in the Annual Disaster Statistical Review and in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. An intellectual engagement with a relational history of flood can enhance levels of awareness and thus reduce those psychological post-flood impacts, particularly anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder, which are often unaccounted for and have been highlighted by recent publications such as Climate Change and Public Health, edited by B. S. Levy, and J. A. Patz and published by Oxford University Press. From this perspective, risk is not to be understood in Ulricht Beck’s sense as “the perceptive and cognitive schema” that “opens a world within and beyond the clear distinction between knowledge and not-knowing, truth and falsehood, good and evil” (5-6). On the contrary, an adequate discussion of the conditions that produce flood moves stories of flood away from the semantics of dreadful risk towards a vision of the future that is shaped by an informed sense of risk.

I became interested in the history of the Trinity River in Northern Texas because continuous warnings for local flash floods prompted me to wonder why flooding could occur in inland Texas. The site unsettled the axioms of my European sense of Texas by introducing unexpected elements such as green grass, magnificent trees, abundant rain, and encroaching waters. Acknowledging the Trinity River prompted me to reflect on the history of the relationship between settlers, water, and land in the Dallas/Fort Worth area. The river also prompted the crucial questions on flooding that opened this reflection.

Is it appropriate to classify each flood occurrence in relation to spatio-temporal categories, particularly in public historical discourse? Wouldn’t it be more effective to refer to each flood in relation to the specific processes that caused it? Engaging with more detailed stories of individual floods would contribute to enhance a defined sense of risk which is easier to navigate than undefined fears of the inexplicable and the unexpected. This informed sense of risk is as important a prevention measure as works of engineering, STEM, and public science.

Luna Sarti is a Ph.D. candidate in Italian Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Her research explores the shifting cultures and practices of water that bound the Arno river in Florence. In her dissertation, she analyzes site-specific medieval and early modern narratives of flooding to discuss if, when, and how flood is to be considered a “natural disaster.” 

Featured Image: Flooded Homes Near Downtown Fort Worth in 1949 Flood of Trinity River (accessed June 24, 2019), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History; courtesy of Tarrant County College NE, Heritage Room.

Intellectual history

Consuming the Anthropocene

by guest contributor Alexis Rider

April 22 was Earth Day: an annual, global, day of mobilization to push for environmental reform. Often painted as the origin story of the environmental movement, Earth Day, which began in 1970, was originally about regulation and education, centering around issues like the ozone hole, oil spills, and pesticide use. 49 years later, in 2019, Earth Day is tinged with greater urgency: the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has given us 12 years to act against the climate crisis, the hottest 20 years in recorded history have occurred in the past 22, the UN Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Service (IPBES) has announced a million species are at risk of extinction, and extreme weather is increasing as frozen and remote parts of the globe melt at an alarming rate. In response, Extinction Rebellion shut down central London, a teen more savvy than global political leaders leads weekly strikes for climate, and glaciers have Twitter feeds that articulate their own demise. Still, though, political inaction is palpable.

Extinction Rebellion(5)
Extinction Rebellion protesters in London, April 2019. Photo: Wiki Commons

Recently, and with fervor, the concept of the Anthropocene has been deployed within academia to articulate the extent and urgency of the global environmental crisis. Originally articulated by atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen and limnologist Eugene Stoermer at the turn of the millennium, the ‘Anthropocene’ is the proposed name for a new geologic epoch, one which aims “to emphasize the central role of mankind in geology and ecology” (Crutzen and Stoermer, 2000). In the logic of Anthropocene, humanity has become a forcing mechanism in global natural processes, producing a clash between ‘human’ or ‘shallow’ time, and ‘deep’ or ‘natural’ time. The ‘Anthropocene’ is an acknowledgement that human activities are changing the world at temporal scales far beyond the histories, lifetimes, or political terms humans normally operate within and imagine.

Graphic of the deep temporal history of the planet. Image: Wiki Commons

In the basic conception of the Anthropocene, there are two actors: mankind and the environment. This sweeping and seemingly compelling divide at once highlights the separation of the two categories and collapses it: if humans are geologic force, we can no longer imagine ourselves outside of nature. Thus, as Dipesh Chakrabarty suggests, the Anthropocene brings to an end “the age old humanist distinction between natural history and human history” which have underpinned Western notions of modernity (Chakrabarty, 2009). In academia, it also challenges traditional divisions of intellectual production—humanities on the one hand, the sciences on the other—that C.P. Snow famously, if problematically, diagnosed as The Two Cultures (Snow, 1959). So, by revealing the inherent interactions of this purported dualism, the Anthropocene is a powerful concept, one that has been gobbled up by the academic world as a new and innovative way to articulate environmental crises, and to revolutionize traditional siloes of thinking and learning. But perhaps the voracious consumption of the Anthropocene should give us pause. If consumption has been the central engine of producing the Anthropocene—for centuries humanity has rapidly exploited the planet for commodification—what of such a rapid and uncritical consumption of the idea itself? What, exactly, are we doing as we ingest and reproduce Anthropocenic thinking?

Critics of the Anthropocene have rightly pointed out what the concept obfuscates: the long and entangled colonial, patriarchal, capitalist histories of environmental exploitation in which humans were not understood as a homogenous group, or as naturally equal. Such critiques are eloquently laid out in, for example, Jason Moore’s Anthropocene or Capitalocene? (2016) and Heather Davis and Zoe Todd’s, “On the Importance of a Date, or Decolonizing the Anthropocene,” (2017). On top of this, far from the revolutionary concept it is purported to be, Anthropocene-thinking is rather familiar: a species-level framework can be found in the environmentalism of Earth Day and it’s more bureaucratic iterations: the IPCC reports and the historic efforts to develop global responses to climate change, from Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment (1972) to the Kyoto Protocol (2005) and beyond. History has therefore shown us that this logic, appealing as it may be, doesn’t hold: in Kyoto, for example, efforts to flatten humans into a monolith were led by developed nations—the main burners of fossil fuels—who deployed a claim to a unified planet to shirk their greater responsibility. The end result of these deliberations is, as argued in ‘Carbon tax: Challenging Neoliberal Solutions to Climate Change,’ a neoliberal model of carbon credits, allowing capitalism and consumption to persist, transforming the air itself into a commodity (Andrew et al., 2010). Conceptually, politically, and pragmatically, then, the simplistic version of the Anthropocene is neither new or revolutionary, nor, it seems, effective. Can the idea of humans as geologic agents in any way help us imagine and do more?

While the ‘human’ of the Anthropocene is overly simplistic and rife with problems, the concept’s attention to temporal diversity could perhaps be its redemption. The collision of shallow and deep time begs the question: How can we make sense of, articulate, or engage with an ancient planet in our fleeting moment with it? In trying to hold multiple timescales in our hands at once, the Anthropocene can help push us to different sources, like natural archives; different timelines, like those traced by plastics or corals; different knowledges, particularly indigenous; different framings, such as a position of care; and fundamentally different definitions of what ‘freedom’ should look like. These shifts invert the equation of the Anthropocene by demanding immediate and sustained attention to the structures that have obscured these different ways of being or knowing, those same structures which have helped shape the dominant narratives of environmental action and political and social change.


To explore one example briefly. Ice is a productive illustration of the alternative spatial, temporal, and relational modes of thinking possible in a less anthropocentric Anthropocene. Today, as vast chunks of ice detach from Antarctica and high mountain glaciers rapidly retreat, ice is the fragile icon of the climate crisis. But ice also gives us access to an unparalleled natural archive, both in the form of ice cores and in the form of icebergs, which as natural chronometers have recorded the deep history of the planet. These archives remind us that the ebb and flow of ice has shaped the surface of the earth as we know it, and that as interglacial beings, we are subject to the whims of a mass of matter that not only moves, but changes state. But to understand all the facets of the frozen material, Western scientific knowledge-production is not enough. As Julie Cruikshank recounts in Do Glaciers Listen? Local Knowledge, Colonial Encounters, and Social Imagination, to the three First Nation women who are her interlocutors, glaciers “are wilful, sometimes capricious, easily excited by human intemperance but equally placated by quick-witted human responses” (8). How and why glaciers move, and the natural and social stories they tell, are multiple, entangled and complex: we should treat them, and all matter, human or nonhuman, as such.

Screen Shot 2019-05-13 at 5.44.05 PM
Liliehöökbreen Glacier, Svalbard. Photo by Author.

By rethinking the meaning of ice, by considering existence at conflicting and complex timescales, and by privileging and being attentive to non-Western epistemologies—which, as Zoe Todd notes, are founded on relationalities that are too often touted as ‘new’ by the West—the Anthropocene can open up to ontological reform, to new systems of governance, and revolutionized modes of knowing (Todd, 2016). The result is a radically different relationship with self, others, and place than that which has underpinned so much of Western thought and society—and justified violent modes of extraction, colonization, and consumption—since the Enlightenment. If freedom, long defined as the liberation of humans from nature, is reconceptualized, the Anthropos of the Anthropocene could be diminished. In humble and thoughtful ways, with an eye to moderation, the idea of the Anthropocene can and should still be consumed.

Alexis Rider is a Ph.D Candidate in the History and Sociology of Science department at the University of Pennsylvania. Her dissertation, “A Melting Fossil: Ice, Life, and Time in the Cryosphere, 1840-1970,” asks how ice, an ephemeral and ubiquitous substance, has been deployed by diverse scientific disciplines to understand geologic timescales. Alexis completed her MA at the New School for Social Research, and her B.A. in English Literature and Philosophy at Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand, which is where she is originally from.


Think Piece

Should we “just keep swimming”?

By Luna Sarti

Deakin Waterlog (American cover)

Several recent publications in the environmental humanities discuss the need for new ways of experiencing and imagining the world around us, with the aim to free ourselves from what Ursula K. Le Guin called the “one-way future consisting only of growth” (A Non-Euclidean View of California as a Cold Place to Be). In the hopes of forging a new (possibly less gloomy) future, scholars across disciplines, from art and landscape studies to field biology, call for slower practices of knowledge that can train us “to pay better attention” and to recover “those pasts we need to see the world more clearly” (Arts of living on a damaged planet G1-2). Walking has become an increasingly popular practice for fostering slowness and for attuning individuals to new ways of experiencing the world and to the forgotten histories embedded in our physical landscapes, particularly in socially engaged art. Less common, but equally interesting, is the idea to turn to swimming as a way to explore waterscapes and regain the perception of our environments as terraqueous assemblages. In Waterlog (2000), filmmaker and writer Roger Deakin provides readers with a wonderful example of what it means to re-imagine life from inside waters.
It is an intriguing vision which exhorts us to recognize how learning processes train us to see certain things, while others are assigned to the background and thus remain blurred. Compared to other practices, swimming certainly allows us to unsettle the contemporary land-centered attitudes that tend to dominate institutional education and scholarship. However, one might wonder how to translate the concept of swimming into practice. Contemporary swimming techniques are, in fact, another byproduct of modernity and were developed in order to make the human body move as fast and efficiently as possible when in water.

Swimming seems to be an unusual object of history, but it is indeed a product of history. In its most common understanding, leisure swimming in pools and the sea, using standard techniques such as breaststroke, free style, backstroke, and butterfly is actually the result of specific political and cultural processes. Although humans have a long history with waters and references to swimming appear in different civilizations and throughout various sources, contemporary techniques have only recently been standardized according to criteria that are largely based on modern re-readings of Roman swimming traditions and that foster ideas of speed and efficiency when the human body is placed in water.

Nicholas Orme

A few scholars have engaged in recovering ancient and pre-modern cultures of swimming, most noticeably Ralph Thomas (1905), Nicholas Orme (1983), Richard Mandell (1984) and Jean-Paul Thuillier (2004). Historian Jean-Paul Thuillier discusses how only the Romans, and not the Greeks, practiced swimming, drawing on Grimal’s suggestion that “a transformation in the sporting habits occurred in Rome, with swimming taking over from racing or wrestling”, as the presence of water in training fields seems to indicate (421). According to Orme, there is no doubt that swimming was in use among the Germanic peoples during the years of Caesar and that it was not only practiced but also praised across Roman, Germanic, and Norse civilizations. From the evidence and the analyses presented in the works on the history of swimming, it seems reasonable to state that in most cases swimming was given a higher status when associated with martial practices.

The most extensive references to swimming do, in fact, occur in texts describing military history or training, most noticeably in Plutarch and Suetonius, who both recount episodes in which Caesar’s heroism and strength emerge through his extraordinary swimming skills. Such a connection between swimming and heroism characterizes also Vegetius’ Epitoma Rei Militaris, in which the ability to swim is described as necessary for soldiers, not only to cross rivers in the absence of bridges but also in the case of sudden floods (Book 1, chapter 10).

There certainly is an incredibly high number of references to swimming practices across authors as different as Caesar, Horace, Cato the Elder, and Seneca. In most cases, swimming does imply a specific way to engage with waters which is associated with what we might describe as ‘Promethean undertakings’, either over the physical environment or against less skilled enemies. At times, one can deduce swimming practices of the time, for example in his Astronomica, Manlius seems to describe something similar to butterfly and breaststroke (Vol. 5, p. 422).

Now lifting one arm after the other to make slow sweeps he will catch the eye as he drives a furrow of foam through the sea and will sound afar as he thrashes the waters; now like a hidden two-oared vessel he will draw apart his arms beneath the water; now he will enter the waves upright and swim by walking and, pretending to touch the shallows with his feet, will seem to make a field of the surface of the sea; else, keeping his limbs motionless and lying on his back or side, he will be no burden to the waters but will recline upon them and float, the whole of him forming a sail-boat not needing oarage (Translated by G. P. Goold).

Although no Latin author appears to have written a major work of instruction on the subject, and thus it is hard to assess what the word swimming (natare) meant at the time, the examples above seem to suggest that the concept was often associated with strength, conquest, and human mastery.

Interestingly enough, in medieval times there seems to emerge a tendency to depreciate the status of swimming for the same reasons that make it valuable in most Latin texts. It has also been observed how the section on swimming in Vegetius’ treatise is sometimes omitted in medieval copies (Chaline 101). Such a tendency is particular evident in both the tradition of biblical commentary and in courtly literature. Authors such as Gregory the Great and Bartholomeus Anglicus stress the dangers of water and minimize the human ability to survive in the element by his own exertions whether one can swim or not. Moreover, while Caesar and the heroes of Northern sagas are described as excelling in this practice which plays a significant role in their heroic achievements, the heroes of the chansons de geste and the romances are rarely or never depicted as swimming. According to Orme, swimming is rarely attributed to the knightly heroes of medieval tradition, and “was indeed seen rather as alien and incompatible with their usual behaviour” (33).

de arte natandi 2
A woodcut from Everard Digby’s De arte natandi.

Historians of swimming agree in identifying a significant change in attitudes towards the practice during the 16th century when swimming is mentioned in educational literature and manuals on the subject start to circulate.  Swimming is variously discussed in treatises such as The governor by Sir Thomas Elyot (1531), Castiglione’s Il libro del Cortegiano (1528), The schoolmaster by Roger Asham (1564) and Richard Mulcaster’s Positions (1581). According to Thomas and Orme, the first work to be entirely devoted to swimming was Wyman’s Colymbetes, sive de arte natandi: dialogus et festivus et iucundus lectu (1538), in which Wyman explains how to swim using the popular form of a dialogue between two characters, Pampirus and Erotes. However, the first illustrated treatise on the practice is considered to be Everard Digby’s De arte natandi, which appeared in England in 1587 and describes both how and where to swim.

Although it has been observed how 16th-century swimming theories targeted literate nobility and gentry, and largely evolved as analytical speculation on the ‘ideal forms of swimming’ which might have had little influence on contemporary swimming practices, it is still significant that such a theoretical interest developed in the first place. European theorists began, in fact, to publish treatises on swimming in a time that is marked by overseas expansion, human mastery, and colonialism.

In an essay entitled Enslaved Swimmers and Divers in the Atlantic World, historian Kevin Dawson has recently demonstrated how the interest in swimming that characterizes the 16th century is entangled with overseas expansionism, extraction economy, and violence. Not only did Europeans employ a high number of ‘enslaved divers’ in the Americas to collect pearls and to recover goods from sunken ships, drawing on native populations first and later on Africans, but they also looked at the swimming techniques of these skilled slaves who adopted variants of the freestyle which were unknown to Europeans. Such a connection between colonialism, slavery, and the development of swimming techniques casts another troublesome shade on the process that lead to the formation of standardized swimming styles.

It is perhaps ironic that a practice which is now associated either with leisure or forms of ‘returns to ecological statuses’ seems to have been fostered into higher social status and standardization not only in relation to conceptions of health and physical force, but also in association with practices of conquest and dominance, either over the physical world or other populations. As a swimmer and a strong believer in practices of care (as theorized for engaged environmental humanities), I wonder what implications this history has in the way we approach swimming and if this affects what we see from and inside the water. Perhaps it is an irrelevant question, but – should we be reconsidering the way we swim?

Luna is a Ph.D. candidate in Italian Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Her research explores the shifting cultures and practices of water that bound the Arno river in Florence. In her dissertation, she analyzes site-specific medieval and early modern narratives of flooding to discuss if, when, and how flood is to be considered a “natural disaster.”  

Featured Image: Woodcut from Everard Digby’s De arte natandi.

Intellectual history

On Lately Looking Into Twombly’s Homer

By Contributing Writer Jeremy Glazier

When John Keats first looked into George Chapman’s rendition of Homer in 1816, he stayed up all night reading the two-hundred-year-old translation with his friend Charles Cowden Clarke and left us with a brief but white-hot record of that transformative encounter: a sonnet, composed on the two-mile walk home from his friend’s house in the wee hours. He was twenty-one years old, with four years left to live and nearly all of his important works yet to come. Cy Twombly (1928-2011) was also in his twenties when he discovered Homer, perhaps at Washington and Lee in 1949, or the following year at Black Mountain College under the tutelage of the poet Charles Olson. In any case, Twombly’s own artistic response to Homer would take longer to germinate than Keats’s—but when it did, it resulted in one of the most extraordinary works of art in the twentieth century: an epic ten-painting sequence, Fifty Days at Iliam.

Two recent books on Twombly offer new insights into a sequence that Carlos Basualdo calls “one of Twombly’s most ambitious and successful works of art” (167). Basualdo is the Keith L. and Katherine Sachs Curator of Contemporary Art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where the paintings have been housed since 1989, and the editor of the museum’s new catalogue, Cy Twombly: Fifty Days at Iliam (Yale UP, 2018). The book not only presents large, full-color prints of the sequence and many related works in the museum’s collection, it also gathers critical appraisals and commentary from art historians, classical scholars, and others. Twombly started work on the sequence in 1977 at the villa he had bought and restored in Bassano, Italy; he was fifty years old. Photographs of the house and Twombly’s studio, taken during this time, help to situate the paintings—which are also shown in their context on the museum’s walls—in the milieu that inspired them. As Joshua Rivkin has noted in another new book—published, coincidentally, the same day as the museum’s catalogue—these works “were as influenced by the interior spaces of Bassano” as they were by the Iliad (216).

Rivkin, Joshua (C) Mary Burge
Caption and credit for the headshot of Rivkin:
Joshua Rivkin Photo: ©  Mary Burge

Rivkin has written a compelling biography/memoir, Chalk: The Art and Erasure of Cy Twombly (Melville House, 2018), which weaves together the familiar elements of biography—the letters, journals, and ephemera that make up a life, compiled over the course of a decade—with Rivkin’s own metanarrative: his personal encounters with the paintings and with the people who guard Twombly’s legacy. Rivkin too has been to Bassano, accompanied by Twombly’s son Alessandro, to absorb the spirit of the place. Interspersed with his insightful commentary is another story, that of the writer chasing the shadow of his inspiration, trying to grasp the intangibles, make sense of something—call it genius—that’s not quite rational. In that sense, Rivkin is not unlike a translator: Pope or Chapman, seeking to transform one thing into another so as to be newly perceptible.

Rivkin, a poet, former Fulbright Scholar, and Stegner Fellow, takes a characteristically readerly approach to Twombly’s paintings: the canvases are texts to be read, texts that are themselves readings of Pope’s Iliad, which of course is a reading of Homer’s Iliad, which is a reading of one of the foundational myths of Western civilization. But “Twombly’s work resists an easy reading” (88), and Rivkin’s method, at once impressionistic and sharply focused, is not without its pitfalls: “in Twombly’s hand, one word can become another, and even scholars who spend hours looking mistake dreams for alarms, mistake one meaning for another” (89). The process of interpreting art, like the process of creating it, often isn’t rational. “Instead,” Rivkin explains, “I let myself experience them without trying to impose a narrative.” (80)

Yet narratives sometimes emerge anyway. The “cloud-like” red, blue, and white figures of Shades of Achilles, Patroclus, and Hector, the centerpiece of the sequence, “represent the dead heroes—these fuzzy ghosts, these spirits made flesh” (218). This painting—the one facing the visitor when first stepping through the gallery door—is for Rivkin the series’ emotional apex: “Death, these cloudbursts say, is waiting.” Other apexes appear in the form of the Greek letter delta (Δ), in red, which Twombly uses for the “A” in names like Achilles and Achaeans. Rivkin sees these not just as “triangles and names and phallic figures” but also as warriors “charging around the viewer in a frenzied rush” (217). There are no color plates in Chalk, unfortunately, but Rivkin’s readings of the canvases provides as intimate encounter with the paintings as can be hoped for in print—and a valuable supplement to the catalogue (or, better yet, to a visit to the museum).

In her essay “Adapting Homer Via Pope” in the museum’s catalogue, Emily Greenwood argues that Fifty Days at Iliam is “an important intervention in the history of Homeric translation and adaptation in the twentieth century” (73). As Olena Chervonik points out in “Study for the Presence of a Myth,” “Twombly’s artistic engagement with the ancient epic is not that of an illustrator, elucidating the twists and turns of a well-defined story” (90). Instead, he uses Homer’s “text as a springboard to dive into the complex history of the Trojan War.” Another word for that kind of springboard or intervention is ekphrasis. Usually we think of ekphrasis as a written, poetic description of a work of visual art, such as W. H. Auden’s famous “Musée des Beaux Arts,” with its comment on Breugel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus. The classic example comes from Homer himself: the description of Achilles’s shield in Book 18 of the Iliad. But in the broader sense ekphrasis is the rendering of one art form into another, a sort of alchemy in which a work is transmuted from one medium into another.

In fact, The Shield of Achilles is the first painting of Twombly’s sequence, located just outside the main room in the Philadelphia museum where the others are essentially lined up for battle, Trojans on one side, Achaeans on the other. Twombly’s depiction of the shield represents a kind of meta-ekphrasis: it is a rendition on canvas of Homer’s famous depiction of the shield—though Rivkin argues that Twombly’s picture “is closer to Auden’s dark poem [with] its scenes of violence and nightmare, ‘barbed wire’ and ‘a sky like lead’” (217): in any case, a painting about a poem about a shield forged by a god as a cosmological map of the world. It’s practically a nesting doll of meaning, an omphalos awaiting skepsis. “In a way,” Rivkin muses, “Twombly always wants it both ways—to be figurative, calling forth the past, an invocation of a lost world and to have the gesture mean gesture. The line is the line.” (229)

Of course, it was Pope’s lines that Twombly’s work traces. As Greenwood notes, “Twombly ostensibly starts with a line of Homer, Englished by Pope […] and then in a process that both departs radically from and is consistent with the highly visual imagination of Homer’s traditional oral poetics, starts putting abstract lines to the war” (82). (Twombly owned a gorgeous copy of Pope’s translation, she relates in a note: an octavo second edition from 1720.) He also, according to Chernovik, “read and reread Homer in renditions from Roman times by Virgil and Apollodorus” and was familiar with Constantine Cavafy’s interpolations of Homer’s stories (89-90). Many of the twentieth century’s greatest masters turned to mythological themes for their muse—but few of them seem to have absorbed Homer’s text as fully as Cy Twombly did, particularly in Fifty Days at Iliam.

Cy Twombly: Fifty Days at Iliam and Chalk: The Art and Erasure of Cy Twombly (photo by the author for JHIBlog)

The two books taken together, then, present something like a master class in reading Twombly’s masterpiece: text, context, subtext, paratext. As Rivkin notes, “They are paintings to be seen all together, the drama of the whole, and to be observed one at a time” (216). Seeing the complete sequence in Basualdo’s catalogue’s high-quality reproductions is perhaps the next best thing to seeing them in sitio. The paintings and their provenance only make up a small portion of Chalk, but their story is at the very center—both literally and figuratively—of Rivkin’s indispensable book. Ultimately, he insists, the paintings represent “not Homer or Pope’s Trojan War but Twombly’s” (216). And thanks to these two very different but complementary studies, it’s now ours too, to read, to translate, to look at and into—perhaps with that same “wild surmise” Keats felt on first looking into Chapman’s Homer.

Jeremy Glazier is a poet, an essayist, and a two-time recipient of the Ohio Arts Council’s Individual Excellence Award in Criticism. You can read his essays on Alex Dimitrov, Don Share, Stéphane Mallarmé, and others in The Los Angeles Review of Books. His poems have appeared in Kenyon Review, Antioch Review, Beloit Poetry Journal, and many other journals. He lives in Columbus, Ohio and is Associate Professor of English at Ohio Dominican University. Email him at