The Surf Zone in West Africa and Hawaii

By Jasmine Marshall Armstrong

Does the surf zone—where sea and shore meet—provide coastal peoples with a more liminal space to transcend white hegemony regarding the body, sensuality and cultural exchange?

Kevin Dawson, an assistant professor of History at UC Merced, explored these questions during his Merced Seminar in the Humanities Talk: “Surfing and Waterscapes in Africa and Hawaii: Redefining Race and White Womanhood.”

Dawson noted that historians have been increasingly interested in coastal zones as sites of study, and have begun to consider “water people,” or those whose lives, rituals work and leisure take place not only on land, but close to the surf zone. For both Hawaiians and West Africans, such zones were “liquid and infinite,” Dawson said.

While western culture treated waterscapes as dangerous voids representing chaos as defined by Judeo-Christian texts such as the Book of Genesis, the early modern people of West Africa experienced the surf zone as a space of sport, play, and spirituality. West African parents were observed by Europeans teaching their children surfing techniques from an early age.

Swimming was revered in both Hawaii and West Africa, with both cultures teaching children to swim as toddlers. Although Europeans had once enjoyed swimming in the Greco-Roman period, the nudity associated with it led those in the early modern to Victorian period to view the activity with suspicion. When European ships arrived in Hawaii in the 18th Century, they were amazed to see Hawaiian men and women swim a mile out from the shore to their ships. In Hawaii, women surfed alongside men, and were honored as powerful warriors for their engagement with the waves. This included a royal Maui princess, whose prowess riding the waves was described as “the most graceful and daring surfer.”

When Europeans and Americans encountered the water people of Hawaii engaged in surfing and swimming, they conceptualized the activities as “primitive” and “savage”—but also exhibited a desire to assert white supremacy by mastering the sports. The descriptions used by California writer Jack London to describe Duke Paoa Kahinu Mokoe Hulikohola Kahanamoku a native Hawaiian Olympic champion swimmer and popularizer of surfing in the early 20th century as “a young God, bronzed.” In the next sentence, London urged Anglo-Saxon whites to master surfing, and best Hawaiians at their own sport.

For white women, the surfing craze in the early 20th century offered an opportunity to escape from traditionally repressive structures regarding display of their body, sensuality and interracial romance. Dawson noted that trips to Hawaii were popular for the daughters of wealthy Americans, and young divorcees. They often were taught to surf by native Hawaiian men working at resort hotels.

One woman who visited Hawaii as a young adolescent in the 1930s, described her encounter with her Hawaiian surf instructor as awakening her sexuality. Dawson noted that biracial children sometimes resulted from interracial romances—adding to the cosmopolitan makeup of the Hawaiian population.

Women—both native Hawaiian and white—were just as well-known for surfing on the beaches of Hawaii as men prior to World War II. After the war, as Hawaiian culture was increasingly whitewashed by mainland acts such as The Beach Boys, women were more often depicted as beach bunnies. It is only in the present era, Dawson said, that women are once again rising to the same level of prominence and importance as men in the costal zone’s sports.

Globalization, Slavery and Pearls in the Age of Imperialism

By Jasmine Marshall Armstrong

Although diamonds may be the gemstone commodity people currently associate with human rights conflicts, in the mid-19th to early 20th centuries, it was the luminous, natural pearl found in the Arabian Gulf that was widely desired, yet also connected to a persisting slave trade.

Matthew Hopper, an Associate Professor of History at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo explored this world during his recent seminar talk at the Center for the Humanities, entitled “Pearls, Slavery, and Fashion: Enslaved African Pearl Divers in the Persian Gulf in the Age of Empire.” Hopper’s book, Slaves of One Master: Globalization and Slavery in Arabia in the Age of Empire, was published by Yale University Press in 2015.

During the pearling season of 1873, an enslaved pearl diver swam over and climbed aboard a British cruiser. What followed was a conflict between the British abolition movement, and the burgeoning craze for pearls brought about by increased wealth from industrialization in both the United Kingdom and the United States.

Describing the conflict as a “diplomatic hailstorm,” Hopper noted that the case became a cause célèbre that had lasting ramifications when enslaved pearl divers or pearling ship crew members attempted to seek asylum with the British. Fearing the diplomatic impact that granting asylum would have upon the pearl trade, the British decided against a policy of helping enslaved pearl divers.

Hopper noted that while the British were proud of their work in the abolition movement from the late 18th century on, and the United States had abolished slavery with the 13th Amendment to the Constitution in 1865, both nations had a voracious appetite for Gulf Pearls, fed by a burgeoning print culture.

In the popular press, Queen Victoria, and French Empress Eugénie de Montijo were both depicted favoring pearls. The newly wealthy from trade and industrialization sought to emulate the nobility by purchasing and wearing pearls.

The practice of enslavement of people from East Africa for use in the Gulf pearling trade persisted into the 20th Century. Some of the enslaved came from Mozambique and Tanzania. Ships often featured crews that were mixed between those owning the boat, paid employees, and their slaves. Arabian ship owners worked in a network of global trade with merchants from India, who then funneled many of the valuable pearls into American and European markets.

In America, although a small industry of freshwater pearls from rivers existed, the newly wealthy Americans sought Gulf pearls. The American craze for pearls in fashion kicked into high gear in the second half of the 19th Century to the early 20th Century. The November 6 1895, wedding of Consuelo Vanderbilt to Charles Spencer-Churchill, the 9th Duke of Marlborough at St. Thomas’ Church in Manhattan was a turning point in the craze for pearls. The New York Times coverage of the wedding, engineered despite the bride’s objections by her socially ambitious mother, Alva Smith Vanderbilt, was called “the most elaborate ever in this country.” Press coverage noted that Consuelo Vanderbilt’s dress would be sewn with real pearls. After she became the Duchess of Marlborough, Consuelo Vanderbilt was frequently photographed wearing pearl chokers, and long pearl opera-length ropes. Hopper said the years 1910-1914 were the peak years of value for Gulf pears, representing the last years of the Gilded Age prior to the start of World War I.

It was an enterprising Japanese businessman, Mikimoto, whose development of the cultured pearl ultimately brought about an end to the demand for Gulf Pearls harvested by enslaved divers. In 1893, he created the first cultured pearl, and thus changed forever the value and consumption of pearls. Freed of the need to harvest oysters in the Gulf in hopes of finding priceless natural pearls, the public began to buy cultured Japanese pearls. “Mikimoto thought every woman should be able to afford a pearl necklace,” Hopper said.

Sadly, the collapse of Gulf pearling created other problems. The freed former pearling slaves now faced hunger and poverty, as they were left to their own devices in the years following World War I. In the 1920s, former enslaved pearl divers often approached British colonial experts saying that they thought they were still the property of those who had owned the Gulf pearling ships, and that such people were obligated to feed them.

Center for Humanities fellows noted after the talk issues of enslavement persist today, whether it be in sex trafficking, or the shrimp industry, which has been exposed for the enslavement of workers. Those in attendance discussed using research and apps to understand ethical concerns related to products.

Water Rights and the National Land for People Movement in the West Valley

By Jasmine Marshall Armstrong

Can water laws meant to protect small family farms be used to give Latinx farmworkers a stake in land ownership in the Central Valley?

This question was central to Mario Sifuentez’s presentation “Land, Food Security and Water Rights in the Central Valley: Farmworkers, the Westlands, and the National Land for People” on Oct. 7, at the UC Merced Center for the Humanities seminar.

Sifuentez, a Center for the Humanities Fellow and assistant professor who specializes in labor, immigration, food and agriculture at UC Merced, said that during the 1970s, The National Land for  People movement, based in Fresno, attempted to use a 1902 law on the books limiting farms that received federal irrigation to 160 acres.

The 1902 Reclamation law, passed during the Progressive Era, was intended to prevent federally funded irrigation projects from being used by robber barons and large corporations, including railroads, in land grabs.

Enforcement of this law on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley proved difficult, Sifuentez said, as family farming corporations would add to their ownership of land by having the title of farm land put in the names of employees, friends or neighbors to skirt the law.

A populist movement connected to the United Farm Workers was founded in 1964 by George Ballis, a populist activist. He envisioned enforcement of the Reclamation Act allowing those who worked the land as farm workers to be able to buy land and become small-scale farmers themselves.

The west side of the San Joaquin Valley is the site of some of the largest farms, Sifuentez noted. This has created vast wealth for family corporations who benefit from Federal water reclamation projects, but has also left Latinix farm workers living in conditions where they do not always have access to clean drinking water.

National Land for People focused their efforts on confronting the Westlands Water District, which stretches from Kettleman City in the south to land north of Mendota. Although National Land for People were successful in winning lawsuits to enforce the Reclamation Act, that progress came to a halt in 1980 with the election of Ronald Reagan. The 1902 law was gutted by his administration, and land owners using federal reclamation water were subsequently allowed to own over 900 acres, and were no longer required to reside on the land.

Sifuentez plans to write his next academic book  on National Land for People and its quest to empower and give property to the people who actually planted, harvested and processed the crops on the west side of the valley. His first book, Of Forests and Fields: Mexican Labor in the Pacific Northwestwas published this year by Rutgers University Press.

Native Hawaiian Music and Cultural Capital in 19th Century Whaling

By Jasmine Marshall Armstrong

When men went to sea in the nineteenth century whaling industry, they entered a working environment which was not only dangerous, demanding, and dirty, but also a space of cosmopolitan exchange with other sailors, according to Dr. James Revell Carr, an ethnomusicologist from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

Carr recently presented “‘Selamoku Hula’: Native Hawaiian Music and Dance at Sea in the 19th Century” as part of the Merced Seminar in the Humanities. As part of his presentation, Carr taught those in attendance a chantey entitled “John Kanaka,” whose title refers to Native Pacific Islanders working on American whaling ships. “Kanaka” is a Hawaiian term for “human being.” Research into the origins of “John Kanaka,” which was used by sailors when hauling up the sails, led Carr to speculate that the song’s Hawaiian lyrics which included the term “stand your ground,” were in part instructions to keep one’s feet firmly on the decking in order to maintain safety standards.

Today, “John Kanaka” is learned by numerous school children, and is sung by park rangers and volunteers from the San Francisco Martime National Historical Park, where Carr previously worked as an interpretive specialist. The original meaning and context of the song did not begin to become apparent to Carr until an elderly woman approached him after a performance and introduced herself as a Native Hawaiian. In his book, “Hawaiian Music in Motion: Mariners, Missionaries and Minstrels,” Carr writes that the woman told him her father was a stevedore in Honolulu, who sang songs combining Hawaiian words with English sailors’ expressions such as “by gum” and “ahoy.” This piqued Carr’s interest, and was the impetus for the research project which lead to his book.

Beyond a means of inclusion within the whaling work space, Native Hawaiian music became an important part of cultural circulation and exchange on the seas. Carr said that whaling ships would often meet up in the waling grounds, during which sailors would trade scrimshaw, books, and music. One mariner’s diary he read an excerpt from noted that during an occasion in which his ship met up with several others, mariners sang songs representing their nationalities and  ethnicities, including Hawaiians. Another sailor, from New England, used his personal copy book to record in Hawaiian a song he learned from Native Hawaiian whalers. The sailors noted that they looked forward to impressing others with their knowledge of a Hawaiian song, reflecting the concept of cultural capital.

While Native Hawaiians were looked down upon by missionaries and those in the sugar plantation trade, in whaling, the working class masculine culture was based around mutual respect for hard work among sailors. “It mattered less if you were American or Hawaiian or English,” Carr said. “What mattered was if you worked hard, and had skills in seamanship, and bravery when facing the whale.” American missionaries attempted to keep Native Hawaiians working on the sugar plantations in Hawaii, but journals and letters Carr has found indicate that most preferred working at sea, where they were treated with more respect, and their culture was appreciated.

Although the cosmopolitan age of the whaling ships ended in the latter half of the nineteenth century, elements of native Hawaiian songs sung at sea continue to appear, whether reinterpreted as music for children or as a popular wedding song. Few Americans today are aware that Hawaiian music has a long history of popularity and inclusion in the repertoire of American popular music, Carr noted. Yet it was Hawaiians who “gave the world a unique combination of sliding steel guitar, driving ukulele, falsetto yodels, and loping, syncopated rhythms that have influenced America since the 1890s at least,” he wrote.

Water Architecture: When Aesthetics Mirrors Social Values

By Jasmine Marshall Armstrong

When most people look at a pumping station or dam along California’s intricate water supply systems, they may think of technology, drought and the Golden State’s insatiable thirst.

Rina Faletti, a Postdoctoral Scholar for the UC Merced Center for Humanities and an art historian who studies the history of urban water systems, sees much more.

Trained in landscape theory and cultural geography at the University of Texas, Austin, where she received her doctorate, when Faletti looks at the 1910 neoclassical Sunol Water Temple in southern Alameda County, she sees an embodiment of the values of the culture which designed and built these water supply features into the temple’s architectural details.

“When someone looks at or imagines a ‘landscape’—whether it is a landscape painting or a garden, ‘wilderness’ or ‘nature’—that viewer perceives ideas and feels emotions that are a reflection of that culture’s ideas about what is beautiful and valuable,” Faletti explained. “My contention is these buildings were just as important as banks or churches, in their time, in conveying values.”

Using the example of the Sunol Water Temple, designed by Willis Polk in 1910 and built by the Spring Valley Water Company, which provided water service for San Francisco from 1860 – 1930, Faletti noted that neoclassical designs for waterworks structures shape the way we think about water.

“Viewers might admire the temple form of the buildings, and in turn admire the patrons of the buildings; in a sense this is a way in which art has been used to ground the public support of industrial capitalism, as a basis for American urban development. From another point of view, just as valid, the associations with ancient Greece and Rome confirm political foundations of a representative republic. Third, the neoclassical aesthetic permits an association with the Romans, whom American culture traditionally laud as being the most forward-thinking engineers in history. These are just three possible ways to interpret the aesthetic form of a neoclassical waterworks structure on a city water supply system,” she explained.

In her studies of water architecture in the American West, Faletti confronts the mythos of the landscape as something to be conquered and dominated, a philosophy writ large by historian Fredrick Jackson Turner during his 1893 talk on the significance of frontier during the Chicago World’s Fair.

“Turner interpreted the West in Romantic terms. The idea viewed settlers and explorers as independent heroes who represented Americans as a whole, who conquered a hostile land by continuously and ceaselessly moving across it,” Faletti noted. The American West was postulated as a ‘savage’ landscape in need of ‘civilization,’ and this point of view ignored the cultures of Native Americans, which already existed, and other perspectives besides those of male explorers and historians, Faletti said.

The “civilizing” values suggested by Greco-Roman water temples of the 19th and early 20th centuries also gave way to a romantic look backward at California’s own past in the Mission architecture of some water conveyance structures. Just east of Merced, beside Highway 140, sits a Pacific Gas and Electric substation built during this period which Faletti said provides a great example of Mission Revival in historic water architecture.

As the 20th Century moved into the Art Deco period, dams built as water reclamation projects often featured ornamental details and motifs. One such dam was the Hollywood Reservoir’s 1924 Mulholland Dam, named for Los Angeles Department of Water and Power engineer William Mullholland.

“It could be seen from everywhere in Hollywood,” Faletti said.

Today, the beauty of the dam is no longer visible, for a surprising reason: The failure of another Mulholland dam. In 1928, the St. Francis Dam, spanning the San Francisquito Canyon 40 miles north of Los Angeles, collapsed, resulting in a catastrophic flood which killed as many as 600 people.

Following the St. Francis Dam failure, the Department of Water and Power covered the Mullholland Dam with millions of acre feet of dirt backfill, according to Faletti. This took place during the height of the Great Depression, a time when Californians’ confidence in the state had been undermined.

“The politics of buttressing a dam that did not need bolstering were about the public perception of safety, not actual structural soundness,” Faletti said. Echoing her contention that a time period’s and a community’s values are reflected in its water architecture, Faletti noted that one engineer at the time denigrated aesthetic design elements of dams, which he saw as “feminine.”

Faletti said her scholarship has been enhanced by her time as a Postdoctoral Fellow for the Center for the Humanities at UC Merced, and noted how much she enjoys refining her water architecture scholarship.

“Water and power are beautiful problems to have, and both as human and as technological problems, they are not going away anytime soon. My job is to observe, record, and comment on the process, and it’s a privilege to provide that service to humanity,” she said.

Vanesha Pravin: A Poet Explores the Transnational

By Jasmine Marshall Armstrong

Recently, The Center for the Humanities at UC Merced hosted a poetry reading and book signing for Merritt Writing Program faculty member Vanesha Pravin, whose book Disorder was published in 2015 and won the American Academy of Arts & Sciences Sarton Poetry Prize.  We spoke with Pravin about her training as a poet, her love of writing about everyday objects, and the influence of a transnational family with roots in Asia, Europe, Africa and North America:

In press for your award, Robert Pinsky noted, “a central challenge for American art has been the confluence of immigrant histories. Rising above the conventional approaches to that material, urgent and severe, Vanesha Pravin’s Disorder attains a global and historical perspective uniquely personal yet wide-ranging.” Could you discuss whether concepts of transnational or cosmopolitan identities have played a role in your development as a writer? If so, how?

The poems span four continents – North America, Asia, Africa, and Europe. My mother went through four citizenships, my father went through three, and I also have two passports. Since I spent half of my childhood in England and the other half on the East Coast with parents who were mostly raised in Uganda and Tanzania, I feel like I’m a hybrid of different identities. These European, Indian, American Southern, and New England sensibilities all shape the way I interpret the world and capture this interpretation through language. Partly from the influence of different languages, but also having had, at one point, a British accent, and at another point a Southern accent, I’m sensitized to sound, rhythm, and cadence, and attuned to the sound patterns of language.

Several of the poems in Disorder take readers into the past based upon everyday objects the speaker in the poems encounters, such as the trading cards from boxers from 1910 in The Pharmacist’s House. Can you discuss the role objects have in your writing? Do they seem to have a life of their own?

Many objects have longer lifespans than humans. When the speaker finds the trading cards, she is thinking about their origin, too. Who bought these cards? The boy who spent hours sifting through them and then, in time, abandoned them, moved away, forgot about them, aged and died. When you hold vintage objects, you’re reminded of your own mortality because when you think about the objects in their original settings, you’re aware that they have outlived their owners. So yes, the objects do seem to have a life of their own. When you’re dusting an object like the wooden elephant in the opening poem, you have a whole range of associations that that particular object triggers for you, but the object also exists independently of your own associations. It usually means something very different for another observer who projects a different set of associations onto it. In that respect, the object can be like a talisman for the different people who possess it.

How long have you been writing poetry and when did you first consider yourself a poet?

I’ve been writing poetry since I was a child (with long breaks since then), but I didn’t commit to it as a vocation until I was a young adult.

What kind of training do you have as a poet? Did you study under particular poets? How did they influence you?

I learned a lot from reading widely and studying books on prosody throughout my formative years. I also took creative writing workshops and classes, and attended readings by poets like Adrienne Rich, Margaret Atwood, and Louise Glück. Later I took poetry workshops with David St. John and Holly Prado, and worked one-on-one with the poet Laurel Ann Bogan. Then I went to grad school at Boston University, where the training was rigorous and I was able to study under Robert Pinsky, Maggie Dietz, and Louise Glück.

Each writer has taught me something invaluable that has shaped me as a poet. Laurel Ann Bogen taught me how to “find the poem.” Sometimes the poem gets buried and you have to dig it out from the mass of text. You might have written a page and a half, but the poem only comes alive in the 3rd stanza and the rest is superfluous, so you have to ruthlessly cut. At BU I was pleasantly surprised, shocked even, at how generous my professors were with their time, giving us extensive feedback and critiquing our revisions. Robert Pinsky was wonderful – an incredibly supportive mentor. I’ll never forget a long letter he sent me with spot-on feedback, which was instrumental in helping me think through the blocks in my work. He advised me to go Zen with certain poems because he thought the readers needed a break between the more intense poems, and that turned out to be essential in figuring out the organization for my book. Robert also introduced me to the work of poets I’d never heard of, like Fulke Greville. Maggie Dietz was also a great teacher. She led workshops on topics like meter and publication, and through those workshops I became much more aware of the subtleties of craft. She also taught me the value of exercising restraint, which really influenced me when I was shaping Disorder. Louise Glück was a force and terrifyingly psychic when it came to dissecting the work. She once spent 50 minutes critiquing one of my poems — I felt like I was going to pass out by the end, but I absorbed it all and internalized the feedback in such a way that the poem took a radical new turn during revision. Louise would also conference with grad students on weekends, spending an hour with each of us. She was also very supportive of my thesis. You hold on to those words of encouragement after you leave BU, during the long droughts where nothing happens and you process rejection after rejection.

In the back of Disorder is an appendix: a family tree. Why did you decide to include this element in your book?

The book has so many characters that it would have been difficult for most readers to map out the relationships without the tree. I struggled for a long time trying to find the right order for the poems. It didn’t work well to have the poems arranged chronologically. So the poems jump back and forth in time – the juxtapositions of past and present turned out to be essential in creating both momentum and highlighting the constant intrusion of the past into the present. So, since the reader already has to do some work figuring out the timeline, I wanted the tree there to at least provide some clarity about who the characters are.

Several poems in Disorder discuss first and second wives in the family history of the speaker. Could you comment on writing about the complicated relationships among women in families depicted in your book?

Well, we’re talking about a time and a culture where you did what you had to do to survive. As a descendent, I was born in a time when I was able to take a Women’s Studies class at 16, so I had to be careful not to write exclusively and patronizingly from the perspective of a 21st century, educated woman. The second wife is also 16-years-old, the daughter of a poor farmer who can’t afford to keep her, and he arranges a marriage for her. From a young age, she is made aware that, as a girl, she is a burden to the father who must find another home for her. She is expected to develop the coping mechanisms and adapt to this awkward situation, and also to respect the first wife, her elder. Poverty doesn’t grant you the luxury of stewing in your feelings. The first wife is also forced to face the reality of her situation – since she can’t bear children, she understands that she must find an alternative and accept the new family dynamic. She knows the second wife will finally bring children into the family. Obviously, there weren’t many options for women in that era, so these women developed the means to acclimate and minimize the drama. There weren’t the daily catfights that you might see in a contemporary reality TV show.

In the case of the two wives in Disorder, after the children come, there is also the daily grind of survival with the additional pressure of young children, so it was imperative that they find a way to make it work and get on with the business of living. The second wife, by nature, was levelheaded and not a complainer, and any resentment harbored by the first wife did not interfere with their joint efforts to run the household. So the challenge for me was to write from their perspectives, and not to turn it into an ethnographic study.

In several poems, including “Sleep, Wake, Sleep,” you write about the Central Valley. How does the local landscape and its peoples influence your poetry?

I spent a lot of time walking through fields and orchards, and taking country drives just to clear my mind. It’s meditative — observing the things of the world that go unnoticed. I love the stimulation of cities, but I also love being refreshed by a space where there isn’t a single human being in sight. Although the Central Valley landscape is the backbone of that poem, it’s not really about the Central Valley – and with any mention of people, I was referring to humans in general. Writing “Sleep, Wake, Sleep,” I was thinking of those drives out in the middle of nowhere where the sky overtakes the land and you can successfully, almost effortlessly, distance yourself from the network of humans. You see maybe a town on the horizon, and you feel insulated from the sort of madness that comes from rampant over-sharing, which has become a poor substitute for authentic connection. That madness in our culture is muted by time spent in the natural world.

What are you working on now as a writer?

I’ve got a few projects that I’m working on, but I’m focused on revising another collection of poems. It’s a very different animal from Disorder, so I’m not applying the same writing strategies and criteria that I relied on for that book. This means I have to be somewhat ruthless with my own work, discarding what I would have gladly preserved in the past. This is simultaneously an invigorating and unnerving experience, to acknowledge that I’m right back at the beginning, hunting for meaning and sense.

Flood Management in Late Imperial China

By Jasmine Marshall Armstrong

How are people impacted by living beside water, and what impact do they exert upon water? What counts as disaster? Ruth Mostern explored these questions in a talk for the Center for the Humanities this fall, “Engineering Empire: The Theory and Practice of Yellow River Flood Management in Late Imperial China.” She noted that for people living near the river, who sometimes lost everything, flooding was a disaster. Yet for a water course, flooding is not a disaster, but rather is a part of the natural cycle and response to change.

Mostern described the Yellow River as “the most sediment laden river in the world,” and explained that erosion from the Loess Plateau on the watercourse leads to heavy silting, which eventually leads to flooding. People exacerbated this problem when they set out to build a series of fortifications and supporting settlements in the lower reaches of the Yellow River. “Human activity can have a very rapid and profound effect,” Mostern noted.

Mostern presented digital mapping of the Yellow River and its floodplain, which is part of her ongoing research into historical archives kept by bureaucrats in states along the Yellow River. She noted that the excellent record keeping of Chinese Imperial Officials makes it possible to study the Yellow River in this way.

A lively discussion followed on ecology, imperialism and how legends relating to water mastery persist today in China. The “legendary” Chinese figure of Yu the Great, who purportedly lived from 2200-2101 B.C., was famed for channeling all the rivers of China and establishing its first state in primordial times, supposedly devising a dredging system used on the Yellow River and other great watercourses in China. So important was Yu’s accomplishment that he was known in history as “Yu the Great Controls the Waters.”

Mostern responded to questions about highly visible research made public this summer in the New York Times indicating possible archeological evidence for the Chinese mythology of Yu and the first Dynasties.

For Mostern, interdisciplinary work in crucial to her project—her primary field is history but she also relies on the work of geographers, hydrologists and soil scientists.

We’d like to hear from other scholars and students who bridge the sciences and humanities: What has bridging fields meant to you in your own work? What have been the challenges and benefits?

Piracy and Protection

by Rina Faletti

In 1924, Harvard Law Review editors wondered: “Is the crime of piracy obsolete?” Today, in a new century and a new millennium, when 90% of global commerce travels by sea, practices of piracy and counter-piracy are pertinent. Research on maritime piracy by Dr. Jatin Dua, socio-cultural anthropologist from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, traces ways in which piracy practices developed in the 19thcentury in the Western Indian Ocean region. He focuses on the Somali coast, one of the busiest merchant port regions in the world. Dua presented “Encounters at Sea: Piracy and Protection in the Western Indian Ocean,” in a bi-weekly seminar series on water hosted by the Center for the Humanities.

Dua explores maritime piracy within frameworks of protection, risk and regulation as he moves among the apparently disparate worlds of coastal communities in northern Somalia, the global shipping industry, and maritime insurance adjustors in London. He locates ideas of protection on a broad continuum between what seem to be polar opposites: of danger and safety, piracy and protection, hospitality and hostility, trade and raid, intimacy and estrangement, patrimony and ownership. He proposes that these “opposites” are “stuck together” as the pirate, the counter-pirate, and the victim of piracy each lay a variable claim to the right to protect the slice of water through which each travels. Here, the “free and open sea” is “far from an empty space of circulation,” but rather a landscape of “forms of territoriality” that variably govern relationships of interchange and conflict at sea.

Dua focuses historical analysis on regional effects of imperialism and colonialism in the 19th century, when interests of imperial ideologies clashed with, and ultimately overran, local sovereignties in maritime transport and governance. His analysis of 19th century Protectorate ideology delineates native protection (whose claim is on an immediate and individualized prospect) from colonial political protection (which claims a global prospect). Dua points out that while colonial-style rhetoric expressed an aspiration toward peaceful and productive co-existence, this was accomplished through “civilizing” practices that disbanded native sovereignties, bringing them under institutionalized control and creating the dichotomy that defined the “Other.”

These points resonate in Dua’s discussion of his current ethnographic work on piracy in the Indian Ocean in recent years. In a discussion of abaan, a cultural institution of protection for itinerant traders in caravans on land, Dua finds that the on-land caravan concept extended culturally into sea trade. Traditionally, protectors of caravans were exalted in ancient poetry; similarly, the rise of piracy into the current century results in an industry of protection from piracy. Today in Somalia, piracy has developed into a highly capitalized practice, where a great deal of money goes into capture, kidnap, and ransom aboard large ships, and where everyone operates in modified modes of protection.

At base in this work, practices of protection hinge on limits of recognition in power relationships. Who is recognized as needing protection, and who as being able to provide it? Where do paradigms of protection fit into assumptions about “civilization”? And, how are the interests of both protector and protected insured in these relationships? Who has the right to be protected? Jatin Dua’s work demonstrates that questions of piracy and protection are far from obsolete.

Ways of Water

by Kim De Wolff

If you google “Maya Khosla” you will find an Indian poet living in America, the co-director of the Turtle Diaries film project, and a Senior Field Biologist. And you will likely be impressed to learn that they are all one and the same person. In her seminar, “Ways of Water, Lives of Those Who Depend On It,” Maya Khosla demonstrated this accomplished breadth in a presentation of prose, poetry and film surrounding her work on sea turtles. Both project and approach reach across divides between researchers and publics, science and art. In what follows I pull out three themes that emerge in and from her work that help us grapple with questions about the practice of being interdisciplinary in a time of ecological crisis.

  1. Communicating “More Than” Science

Though trained as a biologist, Khosla explicitly leaves space for something “more than” science. She writes that arribada, “defies logic, and to some extent, defies scientific understanding,” and deploys scientific concepts as poetic metaphors. The ecotone, for example, as transition area between two bioregions, between land and sea; and as a kind of transcendent boundary space, something bigger and older than humans, than science. The project assumes a natural world that sometimes exceeds our capacities to understand it, and demonstrates a commitment to environmental communication that requires more than the conveyance of measured facts. This stands in contrast to approaches that privilege scientific understanding alone; it is a kind of resistance against the tendency to reduce problems in the word to matters of scientific accuracy (This is an interesting contrast to our first presenter of the seminar, Emmanuel Vincent, who emphasized accuracy and/as credibility as crucial components in climate change science communication).

Like all interdisciplinary endeavors, however, there are tensions between ways of making and sharing knowledge. In an interview, Khosla acknowledges this outright, pointing to the delicate balance between science and values and pushing toward a broader set of questions: what are the relationships between ways of knowing, caring, and acting? Does accuracy matter if it precludes action? Is awareness enough?

  1. Making Ourselves Present

Another way we can think about these tensions is by looking at the variations in writing styles between two short pieces. The Arribada article, for example, leans more toward the conventions of science or environmental writing. It presents a phenomenon in the world: the wonders of turtles coming to nest; a threat to this continuing as returning turtle numbers decline; and the researchers trying to understand it all. The author, as the researcher-writer is a mostly outside observer, describing what is happening on the beach. The article is written in past tense, and even draws on bits of passive voice.

Where the Arribada article opens with images of turtles and turtles alone, the fieldnotes article in Flyways begins with the writer herself very much present: she is “shin-deep” in ocean and turtles and darkness. It is unapologetically written in first person, opening with a declarative sentence that effectively says: “I am here.” Where the Arribada article gives a sense of how the beach looks, here we get a sense of how it feels: little claws digging into human skin and grains of sand that stick to everything; the excitement of scientists and the rubbery smell of baby turtles. The writing is far more emotional, and the author so very human: someone who hopes and cares and struggles and fails. This is perhaps best encapsulated by the devastating moment where a night of successfully leading baby turtles toward the sea by flashlight, ends in the daylight revelation of just how many more remain disoriented and exposed.

Faith. Doubt. Failure. All of these things, of course, are not standard fare in natural science writing where they would be seen to undermine the project of sharing objective knowledge. When and why do we write ourselves in and out of our work? What disciplinary or generic conventions and politics are enacted as we make ourselves and our experiences of research, of interpretation, of emotions, present or not?

  1. From Awareness to Global Change

My final big point returns to the question of the ‘how’ of rasing awareness. Sea turtles are an example of what biodiversity and science and technology scholars (among others) call Charismatic Megafauna: the kinds of species more likely to get attention from publics and policymakers than others. They tend to be large, cute mammals with big eyes. Think pandas, baby harp seals, polar bears. Anything that makes a good plush toy. Like their furry counterparts, a turned around baby turtle being torn apart by a crow – has the capacity to elicit urgent emotional responses in a way that the slow and dispersed effects of ocean acidification cannot. There’s no question, that these are effective strategies for raising awareness, and in the case of organizations like Greenpeace, significant funding. In theory, this funding is then used to protect whole ecosystems.

Yet, as poster-creatures for the ocean, charismatic species like turtles are more likely to be studied, protected and positioned prominently in environmental campaigns than say, the blobfish. Which, if you haven’t seen one, looks like a sad-faced melting pile of pink slime . In response, we could simply adopt the blobfish as our mascot, like the Ugly Animal Preservation Society (Yes, that is for real). But this kind of thinking still leads toward single species-specific problems and solutions. You can see this in the last question asked by the interviewer from Flyways: what can we do to save the turtles?

My final question, then, (and it is a big one) is how do we move from awareness to global change? From having more people on beaches with flashlights to turtle populations that do not need human intervention to thrive. And how do we move from saving specific turtles to addressing the much broader challenges – of climate change, of inequality, of capitalism – at the root of the threats themselves? I do not have the answers – but if it is turtles all the way down, then turtles are an excellent place to start.

Following the Tracks of Yu

by Danielle Bermudez

Water can often be seen as a source of life, but it can also lead to loss. In this seminar, Ruth Mostern, Associate Professor of History at UC Merced, explores how water may have led to immense change of landscape and life in eleventh century China. While research is still being conducted, Mostern provides fascinating insights about the soil of the Yellow River and how this impacted the defensive strategies of the Song dynasty. These dynamics may have altered the environmental history of the region, based on the timing and scale of loess plateau fortification, leading to numerous disaster floods during the eleventh century.

The Yellow River, or Huang He, is the third-longest river in Asia, and is the sixth-longest river in the world, with an estimated length of 5,464 km. It flows through nine provinces, and empties in Shandong province. During the eleventh century, military strategy was important, and ambitious fortification with garrisons, as well as the presence of more than half a million soldiers, had an immense impact on an ecologically fragile region.

According to Mostern, the natural landscape of the Yellow River is prone to soil erosion without vegetation cover. Fortifications in Northern Song were strategically built near the edges of the Yellow River. The exposed erosion-prone sand and soil made its way into the Yellow River, and ultimately drove disastrous flooding downstream. This resulted in one of the most rapidly rising sedimentation rates in history.

Flowing with our ongoing theme of “water,” seminar participants agreed that the environment is not a fixed place, it has agency, is dynamic, and ever-changing, but what is the scale of that change? As the seminar came to a close, participants lingered on the following central question: how do humans shape the natural environment, and conversely, and how does the environment continuously shape us?