The Coastal History Blog 42: Conference (and roundtable!) roundup

“Environmental History at the Coastal Edge” roundtable at ESEH in Zagreb, June 30, 2017. From left to right: Christopher Pastore, Elsa Devienne, Isaac Land, Kara Schlichting, Craig Colten, Giacomo Parrinello. Photo credit: Benjamin Furst.

Apologies to regular Coastal History blog readers—I’ve been quiet for a while.  I’ve been busy with conferences, and also with getting some “thought pieces” into print.  The last year and a half has been about giving presentations, getting introduced, introducing people to each other, and alerting them to the possibilities of organizing around the new subfield in more or less formal ways.

I also had a secret agenda all the while, which was simply to listen.  In practice, that involves reaching out to people whose disciplines or academic backgrounds differ from mine, or chasing after the person who asked the most difficult question in the Q&A.  That means exploring a common interest in coastal matters, and some shared frustration or dissatisfaction with categories like “maritime,” but also colliding with different priorities, concerns, and expectations.  It takes time to digest, and to reflect on feedback.

In this post, I’d like to update you on some highlights from four conferences: the “Firths and Fjords” coastal history conference at Dornoch, Scotland; the Finnish Maritime History Association conference at Kotka, Finland; the European Society for Environmental History (ESEH) conference in Zagreb, Croatia; and the “Oceans and Shores: Heritage, People, and Environments” conference in Lisbon, Portugal.

In a few places, I hark back to old points I’ve made before.  My main emphasis, though, is on what’s new, fresh input, new themes.  If I’ve been speaking to rural historians, environmental historians, leisure historians, archaeologists, anthropologists, urban planners, engineers, art historians, humanities scholars, and even ethnozoologists, and I’m still simply “on message” with the same talking points that I had 18 months ago, that would be a sign I was doing something wrong.


Where does the coast begin and end?

At the ESEH Zagreb roundtable “Environmental History at the Coastal Edge” (photo above), we were pressed by one audience member to define “coast” in an exact way, with a starting line and an ending line.  I understand the impulse to begin with a definition and to know where something starts and stops.  My answer to him was that we had an ample pool of talent in the room right now and we probably could hammer out an intelligent-sounding definition if we had an extra hour together, but there may be a mistaken premise behind the thirst for definitions.

First, I suggested that coasts are inherently hard to pin down.  I think we’ve all heard of “essentially contested” concepts such as liberty.  Imagine starting a lecture or keynote about liberty with a short dictionary definition.  If liberty is essentially contested, maybe coasts are essentially ambiguous.  Several speakers at ESEH had already developed this theme.  Some might prefer words like malleable, fuzzy, or squishy.  In fact, one of my favorite ESEH panels was organized around ice and mud in coastal settings, enumerating all the ways that coasts swell, buckle, and ebb with tidal rhythms, seasonal cycles, and changes in temperature.  That doesn’t even touch the ways that wind and water rearrange the shoreline over a longer timeframe than a mere 12 months.  It would be odd if our analyses of coastal policy and coastal management highlighted the folly of trying to “fix” the coastline, but our academic inquiry began by committing to that same self-defeating path.

Second, I pointed out that there is a great deal of cultural variation about where the land leaves off or where the sea begins.  A hard-and-fast definition of coast formulated by academics familiar with a European frame of reference and concepts of territory rooted in European legal traditions might make it very difficult to take on board concepts that would seem perfectly normal, for example, to Pacific Islanders.

With those two points in mind, I’m happy to entertain a discussion of “where did the coast begin and end in eighteenth-century Brittany?” and so forth for different times and places, but that’s not the same as a putatively universal definition that pre-judges the question and probably creates more problems than it solves.

At the Lisbon conference, I heard several presentations by anthropologists that offered me considerably more ammunition on that “cultural difference” point.  According to Amanda Kearney, the Yanyuwa people (whose lands are now part of Australia’s Northern Territory, verging on the Gulf of Carpentaria), whose “world transcends both terrestrial and maritime environments,” believe that their traditional boundaries extend roughly 40 kilometers out to sea and 15 kilometers inland.  (Confronted with estimates about sea level rise in this century, the Yanyuwa were initially unalarmed because they understood the “shore” to already extend far back from where the Australian government’s maps sited it.)  The Yanyuwa definition is of more than academic interest, as Australian courts in recent years have acknowledged Aboriginal title to land, but not yet to saltwater areas.

John Mack, whose keynote at the Lisbon conference drew primarily on examples from African cultures, noted that in Benin, any water that flows into the sea is considered as part of the sea for ritual and other purposes.  I asked Amanda Kearney if anyone had assembled the comprehensive, or at least comparative, list of different ways that coasts had been defined in different cultures around the world.  She hadn’t encountered anything like that, but it would be interesting to see if there are some patterns, beyond just a diversity of definitions and priorities.  I would assume that all littoral cultures have one or more words for “coast” (multiple words would be interesting), but I could be wrong about that.  According to Kearney, the Yanyuwa term for the intertidal zone is “namu-wuthan,” literally “incompleteness.”

Maybe one way forward, on an interim basis, is to define a “coastal zone” instead of a “coast.”  Calling it a zone implies some arbitrariness and fuzziness around the edges, and hints at the outset that different cultures and time periods will “coast” differently.  In my work on urban history, I’ve played with concepts like foreshore, offshore, and estuary as a way of insisting on different gradations of amphibious admixtures and drawing attention to what work we think the coast is performing.  A geologist might be satisfied with a physical definition of coasts, but most of us in the humanities and social sciences will wonder what the coast is about, who uses it, and for what.


From mobilities to adjacencies

As most readers of this blog know, my conceptual path to coastal history ran through the so-called “sailortown” neighborhoods, and I’ve published a lot in recent years about urban coasts in one form or another.  However, it is self-evident that many coasts (now, and in the past) have no large permanent settlements at all.  Notwithstanding the fact that this blog is hosted by a website called Port Towns and Urban Cultures, it has received a lot of attention from scholars of the rural coast, and the first ever coastal history conference was held in Dornoch, in the Scottish highlands.  David Worthington, who organized the conference, had just published an article in the journal Rural History about Scottish ferries.  He has really helped me redirect my attention to the concept of adjacency. In the rural setting, this can be about narrow bodies of water (straits, firths, fjords) rather than noticing which streets and neighborhoods brush up against each other.  Also at the Dornoch conference, Amy Todman’s paper on different artists’ views of Bass Rock—from varied angles and distances, and in different contexts—reminded me of some of my own work on individual street corners.

I was reminded of adjacency again at the conference in Finland.  The conference was held in Kotka, which is a city on an island not far from the Russian border.  One of the hosts—I don’t remember now if it was Sari Mäenpää or Kirsi Keravuori—explained to me that the border with Russia was adjusted after World War Two, resulting in the loss of several smaller islands.  Because of the Cold War, travel to Russian territory was difficult at best.  For the displaced Finns, this meant living out the rest of their lives within sight of their former homes across the water—or at least the islands on which their homes stood—without the ability to reach them.  I suppose this story resonated with me not just because it was vivid and poignant, but because it’s the sort of intimate, small-scale detail that typically doesn’t come to mind when we speak of “the history of the Baltic” and all the grand, far-flung connections that the Baltic might have among its component parts and to the Seven Seas beyond.

I heard another suggestive Finnish example at the ESEH conference.  Parts of the Finnish coast are dotted with vast numbers of small islands.  Local authorities needed to choose a site for a schoolhouse, a fairly prosaic problem.  How best to site it, though, to make access easy for children from the largest possible number of inhabited islands? This posed a sort of geometry problem, compounded by the fact that for much of the year the gap between some islands would be iced over.  If the children were crossing on foot, and not in a boat, that changed the equation.  Ice is not of an even consistency and “freezing over” doesn’t mean a channel between islands is thick enough to walk on safely in every single week of every single winter. I suppose I’ve encountered a version of this before in Central Place Theory, and in Horden and Purcell’s The Corrupting Sea (an Aegean, for instance, united by a web of tiny islands within sight of each other, and ceremonial centers located at “hub” islands within sight of many).  I love the fine detail of the Finnish example, though, the variations according to how many people actually inhabit which islands and how thick the ice is likely to become in which channels.

Also connected to the ESEH conference, I had the pleasure of reading some of Giacomo Parrinello’s work in progress.  Adjacency, for an environmental historian, takes on some additional meanings—for instance, if your fishing grounds are close to a pipe that is seeping arsenic-contaminated industrial waste into the Mediterranean, then some very small differences in proximity may be decisive.

In the past, I’ve emphasized concepts like “the local” and “the domestic.”  My dissertation was entitled Domesticating the Maritime.  I’m beginning to see even these as contained within a larger, more flexible concept of adjacency.  The adjacency can be social (family and kin; watery “neighborhoods”) or political, but it can also be physical (line of sight, degrees of proximity, downstream, upwind).

Another reason to take adjacency seriously is that it speaks to something larger than the gap between historians of the urban and historians of the rural.  As we begin discussions about founding an interdisciplinary journal, one pertinent question is: To what extent is a “coastal history” or “coastal studies” concept intelligible and viable across different academic disciplines?

It’s a tall order to make a statement that would speak with equal eloquence to an anthropologist, a visual artist, a humanities scholar, an urban planner, an archaeologist, and a climate change activist. But I’m beginning to think that what distinguishes coastal studies from maritime or oceanic pursuits is that we are asking more questions about adjacencies than questions about mobilities.  That’s a short, simple statement, but as an approach or attitude, it immediately reminds me of what I’ve heard from many different people from different academic backgrounds who’ve each been frustrated that their work didn’t line up with the established categories of scholarship, or ask the expected questions of the expected sources.


Is the point of coastal studies to emphasize the homogeneity of coasts, or their diversity?

Starting with my initial formulation in “Tidal Waves: The New Coastal History,” I’ve been arguing that the diversity is the point. I also took that position in my first blog post, more than three years ago.  Lately, my favorite quick way to clarify what this means in practice is to nod to the example of Island Studies as exemplified by scholars like Godfrey Baldacchino.  Island Studies doesn’t begin with Alcatraz, and then dismiss other islands as not quite living up to that ideal. Nor does it posit Santorini, Bahrain, or the Island of Dr. Moreau as the exemplar.  Instead, it takes the variety of islands, islanders, and the divergent deployments of islandness in various cultures, time periods, and settings as the starting point for discussion.

At the Lisbon conference, the anthropologist John Mack offered another way to gently direct us away from the trap of imagining that there is a singular coast.  In his keynote, he put up a slide showing the slave trade forts in Ghana (I don’t recall now if it was El Mina or Cape Coast Castle).  He remarked that when we look at a slave trade fort, we immediately think in terms of long-distance trade and oceanic systems (or, I suppose, in today’s context, the globalized tourist industry that brings visitors to visit slave trade sites).  Next, he put up another slide, a photograph taken from basically the same location—just turning a bit to the left.

What do we see on the beach next to the slave trade fort? It is packed with hand-hewn wooden canoes used in the coastal fisheries and for short-haul local transportation.  This pairing of just two photographs, of course, invites the thought experiment of wondering what “the Ghanaian coast” would look like if we sampled it at five places, or at fifty.  My own paper at the Lisbon conference was much in the same spirit, exploring the perspective of coast walking artists on long comprehensive itineraries like William Daniell, who (whatever his preconceptions) necessarily found himself drawing urban coasts, rural coasts, engineered coasts, sheer cliffs, and much more.

I get stuck, perhaps, on spatial diversity because that is my habit of thinking.  There are other ways to speak of multiple coasts, though.  Not surprisingly, at ESEH I started to encounter people who wanted to hear about animal- or bird-centered coastal histories.  One of the organizers of the Lisbon conference was Cristina Brito, an ethnozoologist who has done extensive fieldwork in Lusophone African countries as they attempt to formulate policies on the “aquatic bushmeat” issue. In Africa, some people regard manatees as water spirits, while others—less familiar with the creatures—kill them on sight as unlucky harbingers of the End Times.  You can read more about the work of the African Aquatic Conservation Fund here.  Brito has a new chapter out in an edited volume, Perspectives on Oceans Past, in which she discusses the campaigns to change public perceptions of manatees in the Americas, including the successful effort to “rebrand” the manatee in Florida as a form of charismatic—not ugly—wildlife.

From pretty early on, I understood that oil spills and other forms of pollution should be a pretty natural fit for coastal history.  At ESEH, I heard some other suggestions that weren’t on my radar, but make perfect sense.  One was anti-mosquito campaigns as a central element in the story of many modern coastal regions.  Another was the advent of bulldozers and heavy equipment, sort of the terrestrial analogue to dredging.  That includes the creation of new airports on, or immediately next to, the coastline.  I am always encouraged when people pick up the coastal history or coastal studies rubric and run with it in ways I did not anticipate.  That, more than anything else, reassures me that the enterprise is worthwhile.


What am I thinking about now, that I wasn’t before?

One theme I heard about a lot from environmental historians, on my ESEH panel and elsewhere, was governance.  Balancing the public good, the public purse, and the non-negotiable demands of Mother Nature has been a challenge from way back; one of the final panels at ESEH, “Wet Borderlands,” featured Adam Sundberg’s work on the political difficulties of early modern Dutch territories and the neighboring German-speaking principalities.  Someone had to pay for the maintenance of the dykes facing the North Sea, even though taxation, as ever, was unpopular. On the occasions when flood barriers failed, someone had to pay for flood relief.  A truly “equitable” distribution of that burden would have meant that communities just ravaged by flood waters would get hit again with a financial loss.  Yet any system that exempted the hard-hit areas involved an emergency tax on untroubled areas, often ones further inland with less experience of flooding, and with little contact with anyone who had suffered.  Then as now, big-picture thinking and altruism were not always in ample supply.

Poul Holm’s Lisbon keynote confronted the ticking clock of sea level rise and climate change negotiations in the age of Trump (whose name he went to some lengths to avoid uttering).  A lot of discussions about sea level rise begin with the unstated premise that preserving the way things are would be nice. What counts as a coast worth defending, though?  Do we mean

  • the exact disposition and appearance of the shoreline as it stands today?
  • heritage, in the form of historic sites or iconic landmarks?
  • the coast as habitat or migration path for non-human creatures?
  • heritage, in the form of “traditional” economic uses like fisheries?
  • currently profitable economic uses that may be unsustainable?
  • exciting but unproven potential uses (tidal energy, floating wind farms)?
  • entrenched stakeholders like settled communities, leisure users, real estate investors, and resort operators?

Bearing in mind that we don’t have any quick or comprehensive solution to stop sea level rise tomorrow, and these various “coasts worth defending” are often competing for the same narrow territory, that means consciously choosing coastal winners and coastal losers, accepting some messy outcomes, and justifying the compromises made.  Poul Holm summed up our current quandary with four deceptively simple questions:

Oceans: what did the sea ever do for us?

Coasts: what do we cherish?

People: how do we all get a say?

Money: can we get it right?

Holm emphasized that the same coast is going to mean different things to different people in different contexts.  In a policy or planning debate, the risk is that those who approach the task with a pre-determined definition of “coast,” or “who is a coastal stakeholder,” will get blindsided by resistance from an unexpected direction.

Holm’s specific example was a coastal region known as the Wadden Sea spanning today’s border between the Netherlands and Germany.  It was all very well to devise a plan with wildlife experts and scientists to conserve the area, but the effort to persuade the public met with a lot of mixed feelings and pushback. The Wadden Sea was not charismatic in the way that the Alps or the Amazon rainforest are; it was, after all, a muddy estuary.  One effort to sell the Dutch public on the Wadden Sea as a legitimate wilderness area was Johan Van der Keuken’s 1978 documentary film, Flat Jungle.  A more capitalist-minded rebranding campaign for the Wadden Sea went by the name “Liquid Assets.”  (I had already learned about these at the “mud and ice” panel at ESEH; my conferences were starting to run together!)  At the end of the day, governance in democracies means persuasion, and not just rule by experts.  In his keynote, Holm did a good job of striking an optimistic note, while acknowledging that we should expect plenty of one-step-forward, two-steps-back episodes along the way.

Governance was also a recurring theme on the Lisbon panel consisting entirely of faculty from the University of West Florida.  It included Jamin Wells, a longtime friend of this blog.  The panel was a refreshing mix of public history, policy, pedagogy, archaeology, and plain old conventional history in one place.  John Jensen remarked on the legal difficulties of defending heritage sites in coastal areas; the law has not been designed with them in mind.  “If it’s not a fixed property, it’s not heritage,” he remarked.  This is another reminder that as important as governance is, we may not yet have developed the right toolkit, at least out of Western legal philosophies, to act as wise trustees of the watery and the squishy.

Final event of “Oceans and Shores” conference in Lisbon, July 14, 2017. From left to right: João Paulo Costa, CHAM (Portuguese Center for Humanities) Director; Ana Coutinho, Sub-director of FCSH – NOVA University of Lisbon; João Amorim, Director of Museu Oriente; Fátima Claudino, Representative of the National UNESCO Commission; John Mack, keynote speaker. Photo credit: Isaac Land.

In conclusion, maybe it’s worth mentioning a couple things that I am not hearing.  I could very easily be coming across apathy (“sure, there could be a new subfield, but why bother?”) or that old standby of academic life, “don’t you know that this has already been done?”  Meeting this many academics, in this many countries, across this many disciplines, some version of that response wouldn’t have been too shocking.  Interestingly, though, what I’ve encountered pretty consistently is a sentiment that the coast hasn’t gotten its due, that oceans on the one side and land masses on the other have tended to drown them out, and that the intellectual toolkit to critically discuss coasts remains lacking or underdeveloped—not just in History, but in a number of other disciplines.  As I suggested in my guest post for David Worthington, there’s significant potential for a grand coalition of misfits who would welcome an academic home.  If I’m taking away a larger lesson from my recent conferences, it might be that I’ve underestimated the numbers and scope of that potential coastal studies community.

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One Response to The Coastal History Blog 42: Conference (and roundtable!) roundup

  1. Nicolaas Vergunst August 10, 2017 at 11:00 pm #

    Thanks for a most informative and enjoyable overview, Isaac, specifically since it draws togerher several diverse disciplines. Thanks too for sharing your insights so generously.

    I once asked a geologist to define where a mountain began or, rather, where the surrounding landscape ended, and he replied “at the significant increase in slope”. Though vague and imprecise, I guess each particular coast begins where a significant transition between and/or combination of terrain, vegetation, water, weather, habitat, occupation and economy occurs.

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