Swamped: Wetlands and Mobility in the Early Modern Atlantic

The Oecologies Working Group presents a talk by

Professor Hillary Eklund

“Swamped: Wetlands and Mobility in the Early Modern Atlantic”

on Friday, 26 January 2018 at 12:00 p.m. in BuTo 599

ABSTRACT: In western literary history wetlands have been consistently, though not uniformly, cast as nature’s mistakes, landscapes that time forgot, rotten blemishes on the face of the earth. So commonplace are these associations that they slide even into metaphor. Dante’s misers spend eternity in a stagnant slime that reminds them of their sluggish improvidence. Milton likewise figures Hell as a hateful bog. The protagonist of John Bunyan’s allegorical Pilgrims Progress sinks under the weight of his sin in the Slough of Despond. In short, wetlands are slow, inefficient, and aesthetically outside what we are conditioned to find beautiful. In their mixture of slow moving waters and soft soils, wetlands tend also to be cast as obstacles to human movement and progress—an association that bears out even in our own vocabularies of limitation: “swamped,” “bogged down.” This talk considers early representations of wetlands in the colonial Atlantic world, where the stubborn slowness of wetlands runs athwart the fast violence of conquest, the circulation of dominant cultural and religious attitudes, and imperatives for technological progress. Inhabitants of the English fens stubbornly resist encroaching land use practices; Irish bogs harbour rebel outlaws; the coastal marshes of New England and Virginia impede settlement; and Spanish explorers fantasize of drying the Everglades to make them more easily passable. While these temporal clashes produce widespread disregard for wetlands, their undercurrents simultaneously invite us to tarry, to sink in to the uniquely slow ecomateriality of the damp earth.

Also see Oecologies