Reflections on ASLE 2019

by Michael Hewson

Thinking Environmental Humanities for a moment – how many people would you guess might gather for a conference around the study of literature and the environment? 100? 150? Well, some 1,200 apparently… that’s the attendance figure for the 4 days, sometimes 20 concurrent sessions, Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment (ASLE) biennial conference held at the University of California, Davis campus from June 26th to 30th 2019. Big, like Texas (so it goes).

The conference theme was ‘Paradise on Fire’ – which became quite problematic in 2018 (after the conference publicity went out) when large areas around the nearby town of ‘Paradise’ were indeed burnt to the ground by the most destructive wildfire in Californian history. Purely coincidental. On the one hand, the organisers took an opportunity for community fund-raising – and yet on the other, a massive metaphor in the back of the mind.

I joined a NASA satellite scientist, published poets and ecocriticism academics in one of the art|science|activism stream ‘jam’ sessions. I yarned on the science of geoengineering (the idea of sluicing the stratosphere with anthropogenic aerosol to cool the planet) using a creative non-fiction piece paired with a concrete poem called – for allegorical reasons – ‘raining cane toads’. Although deciding which session to attend became a psychological coin-flipping problem; I learnt much more about the ecocriticism discipline and its various contemplative and scholarly practices. In another session, I heard Jane Hirshfield, who (amongst much more) wrote poems for the US science defunding protest ‘March for Science’ on the Washington ‘mall’ in 2017. Poets for Science? Science for Poets. In another session – oh well, space does not permit…

Suffice to say I learned a lot about speaking environment in a literary sense – in ways, means, genres, quality and perspectives as diverse and as encapsulating as life and history can get. And on a US university campus – measured by a 2 km walk from dorm to breakfast and then (in the opposite direction) a 3 km walk from dorm to conference – and still not testing the campus boundaries. Oh, and recycling is done far better on the US campus than I see here at my home institute… Just saying.

The conference ran very smoothly and, contrasting geographical science conferences I would normally frequent, sessions were well attended and ran punctually without overt time control. I suspect (as in ecology) that diversity and inherent creativity were the drivers of an evident level of harmony.

I can see why ‘Environmental Humanities’ is a growing field of scholarship.

Michael Hewson teaches environmental geography at CQUniversity with research interests in the spatial analysis of the atmosphere. These days, courtesy of a CQU MLitt in progress, Michael is dabbling with articulating geographical science in a creative writing form (it’s an ageing thing).