A Conference Report on ‘The Garden: Ecological Paradigms of Space, History and Community’ (EASLCE, University of Würzburg, September 26-29, 2018)

The European Association for the Study of Literature, Culture and Environment (EASLCE) Conference 2018

Report by Lucy Rowland

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Conference Programme (Design by Anka Buchler, http://www.anka-buechler.de)

The 2018 EASLCE conference at the University of Würzburg in September 2018 brought together scholars from across the globe, working along the intersections of literature, culture and the environment, and the environmental humanities more broadly. A packed 3-day programme including 28 panels and three keynote lectures from Catriona Sandilands, Axel Goodbody and Robert Emmett, made for many stimulating discussions ranging from topics such as horticultural poetics, the (M)Anthropocene, and reading German gardens, to ‘misecogyny’, ecocide and friction.

The conference was opened on Wednesday afternoon by the local conference organiser Prof. Dr. Catrin Gersdorf, Chair of American Studies at JMU Würzburg, and Prof. Dr. Serpil Oppermann, the President of EASLCE, who then introduced the first keynote speaker of the conference, acclaimed ecocritic Catriona Sandilands (York University, Canada). Sandilands’ lecture, titled ‘Gardening in the (M)Anthropocene’, discussed the andro- and anthropocentric implications of the term ‘Anthropocene’, and proposed the act of gardening as a way of taking care of, and paying attention to, environmental pasts, presents and futures. Sandilands also advocated a practice of “attentive reciprocity” within gardening, in a recognition of what humans can do for plants in and of themselves, as well as vice versa. Pointing out that “taking care” in this way is usually seen as women’s work, Sandilands emphasised the necessity of noticing, caretaking and spreading as the central tenets of cultivating feminisms in the (M)Anthropocene.

The morning of Thursday 27th September began with a short speech from Uwe Küchler (Tübingen, Germany), who introduced the second keynote speaker of the conference, Axel Goodbody (University of Bath, UK), with his talk on ‘Nature as Cultural Project: Gardens in German Literature’. Discussing the work of several German authors, for example Jenny Erpenbeck, Goodbody related the texts to German philosopher Gernot Bӧhme and his theory of atmospheres, suggesting that landscapes manifest themselves to human perception in potentially mood-altering ways, and focusing on the symbolism of the rose garden in German literature, and the seclusion and darkness of the garden and house in Erpenbeck’s Heimsuchung.

The first full conference day continued with concurrent panels in both German and English, on topics including ‘Uncanny Gardens’, ‘Garden Art/Art Gardens’ and ‘Fiction and the Horticultural Imagination’.  Papers ranged from postcolonial perspectives on Indra Sinha’s Animal’s People, a critical perspective on Miyazaki’s anime Nausicaä, Tijuanian dystopias, Caribbean visual art and musical gardens. A second set of panels covered topics such as ‘How (Not) to Narrate the Anthropocene: Storytelling, Realism and Environmental Change’, with insightful papers by Dana Phillips (Towson, MD, USA), Adeline Johns-Putra (Guildford, UK), and Hannes Bergthaller (Taichung, Taiwan). Other panels included a discussion of the politics of modern Irish gardens, gardens as heterotopias, and the language of flowers in Marosa Di Giorgio’s plant writing. The day concluded with a set of panels, which considered the composition of ‘unruly Anthropocene gardens’, gardens within the work of Margaret Atwood, and the interrogation of space and gaze within environmental film. The day concluded with a historic wine tasting experience in the atmospheric cellars of the Residenzplatz.

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Beehives in the Campus Garten (Photo by Eline Tabak)

On Friday 28th September, the first and only panel session of the day consisted of a German-speaking panel on heterotopic, utopic and dystopic gardens, a panel on the garden and the history of land use, one on ‘Garden Varieties: Desert, Plantation, Backyard’ and finally ‘The Garden as Material Practice’. Notable papers such as Isabel Pérez-Ramos’ take on literary perspectives on gardening within Native American and Chicana/o literature of the US Southwest prompted discussions on the obscuring of Native American histories of gardening and cultivation within the Southwest, drawing on points made by Catriona Sandilands in her keynote speech. Peter Mortensen’s reading of Karen Blixen’s Out of Africa also incited questions of the racial and spatial politics of texts such as these. In the afternoon, attendees went on a range of excursions, from trips to the Würzburg Botanical Gardens and the Rhӧn UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, to beekeeping and a workshop at the University Campus Garden, which involved learning about the gardening practices and environments cultivated in urban spaces, as well as the creation of a plant images through the use of photo paper.

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The Campus Garten (Photo by Eline Tabak)
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Workshop in the Campus Garten: arranging plants on photo paper (Photo by Eline Tabak)

On the following and final day of the conference, Saturday 29th September, Dr Robert S Emmett opened with his keynote lecture, ‘Cultivation, Insurgency, Charity: Public Food Gardens in the Penumbral Period’, which discussed the politics of public food spaces, the dislocation of marginalised communities in relation to the creation and/or destruction of these spaces, and the media perspective and marketing of those who advocate for public gardening practices. Examining the history of Virginia Tech University and its land occupancies and ownership alongside these matters, Dr Emmett advocated for recognition that charity community gardens or foundations can often be a veil for real issues, and can promote a damaging narrative of “self-help” within poverty-stricken communities.

The following panels ranged from discussions of media, pop culture and film, to ethics, poetics and aesthetics. A panel on philosophical gardens featured papers from Richard Kerridge (Bath, UK) speaking on the garden in Anthropocene nature writing, and Simon Schleusener, who proposed that ‘The Machine Is the Garden: Concepts of Ecology and Nature in the Anthropocene’. Afternoon panels looked at the ‘Four Faces of Eden’, with papers considering the garden in an Edenic context, and others further examining garden art/art gardens and the garden as material practice, with panels 25 and 27 combined, featuring interesting contributions from Greg Garrard (Kelowana, Canada) who spoke on director Derek Jarman’s Gay Georgic aesthetic in his films and his own life, and a fascinating paper from Linda Hess who examined the US National Park as a potential symbol of resistance against climate denial in the era of Trump.

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Marienburg Fortress above the River Main (Photo: Author’s Own)

In the closing remarks, Dr Catrin Gersdorf thanked attendees, organisers and facilitators of the conference. She drew attention to the friendly and welcoming nature of the conference, and the keen discussion and scholarly debate that characterised the panel sessions and the question and answer sessions following the keynote speeches. It was noted that the new connections drawn across the field of the environmental humanities during the conference will facilitate new research and collaborations, and that the theme of ‘The Garden’ had enabled a focused and strongly interrelated set of papers that contributed to an exciting and exploratory gathering of international scholars.

Report by Lucy Rowland

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