LONDON, BRITISH LIBRARY HARLEY MS 4431 f. 107v
The Elsewhere: A Solution to our Ecocritical Imaginings
A large part of oecologies relies on the imagined as it manifests itself within the idea of the Elsewhere. The Elsewhere is both a theoretical understanding of hybridity but I believe it is both a very real and imagined place. It is the bridge between acknowledging the past and understanding that the current future is no longer an option (a source of acute anxiety for myself and I’m sure the generation as a whole) which paves its way to the question: What is left? I believe the answer comes from ecocriticism and medievalism which requires us, as readers, as thinkers, as people, to look Elsewhere.
The Elsewhere was introduced as a vexing idea during Samantha Purchase’s presentation on “Dream of the Rood” to our Winter 2022 class on Oecologies (taught by Dr. Kenna L. Olsen) which focused on non-human (how I refer to nature / the natural without inciting confusion or ire) technology being refocused and repurposed for human use. In the case of this poem, the focus was on the hybridity between the tree speaker being transformed into a rood. Purchase’s presentation engaged the class in conversation with Matthew Scribner’s article “Tree and Technology: Articulating the Ecological in ‘The Dream of the Rood.'” Scribner located hybridity and the Elsewhere by explicating in detail two sides of a dichotomy and placing hybridity in the middle. Scribner was a source of discussion all term as the class, and I attempted to locate the imagined Elsewhere. While many of us, inside our grey box which could be everything from hills, forests, to cities, now and forgotten, had a hard time applying Scribner’s ideas to other works save for Dream of the Rood, I believe that Purchase’s presentation and Scribner’s idea opened a world of possibility by imagining a third option to past and future that isn’t the present.
The past, contextualized by the idea that time moves forward and whatever is behind is passe or finished, somehow means that what is in front or forward is progress. This implies that the future is full of optimistic faith that everything will get better, and our current ecological problems will be solved with the advent of new technologies. But with our current understanding of climate change and the goal to be carbon neutral to save the earth, the future is looking more anxiously bleak. This can be highlighted by the Science Fiction genre where we reflect on our anxieties and imagine them into the future. Oecologies and medieval literature reflect on the non-human’s ability to feel that it is being used. This can be seen in “Dream of the Rood” where the tree is narrating the technological transformation into a rood. The Exeter Riddles also express a voice but lack of agency that the non-human narrates through being transformed into tools or objects for human use. This suggests that the medieval mind was ecologically concerned with subjects of use and longevity. It would appear, from my understanding, that the medieval mind and the 2022 thinker are tinkering with ideas of the natural or non-human in similar ways, that longevity and sustainability are paramount. But we cannot return to the past and our current future as it is under capitalism and environmental catastrophes, which is no longer an option, therefore where can we go? This is The Elsewhere.
Logan Pollon from the University of Calgary presented their paper “Has Beowulf Been Modern? Unearthing and Examining Nature and Society in Beowulf” at the 2022 meeting of the Medieval Association of the Pacific (Banff, AB) where I think they fused further the ideas of The Elsewhere. Pollon qualifies modern as nature / the non-human is behind with progress ahead and modernism is in isolation in-between. If modern is always in the middle of these two things, it is both always and never. Pollon also qualifies time or history as a deviation from the norm. Everyday life continues along but history is marked by action and violence. Similar to Purchase’s presentation, Pollon recognizes that we can never go back, we can never be pre-modern again. Pollon argues that swords in Beowulf are quasi-objects, understanding that they aren’t all the way natural or non-human but aren’t all the way human either. Notably, the swords as quasi-objects compare the named sword with that of the unnamed one. The history of the named sword is prescribed the history of human actions. Just as the objects in the Exeter Riddles are inscribed value through their potentiality and use of the non- human to the human. The swords, as noted by Pollon, are characterized by the human histories in which they, perhaps unwillingly, participate. This unearths that we see the non-human as tools in our histories and that the non-human can be only valued as they participate in our histories. This is further explained by Pollon as the second sword they present is one without a name, without a history, because it hasn’t participated in the histories and violence of the human. To use this logic and argument, the second sword belongs to the non-human and that nature remains unnamed if it does not serve human prescriptions in the human world. This establishes a value system, one that values the potentiality of the non-human for its use within the human. Both Purchase and Pollon are establishing thoughts of hybridity and the Elsewhere. They both recognize that we can never go back to before our current ecological crisis and that our collective future is an unsustainable option. They understand that the medieval mind is questioning the non-human’s sustainability and involvement in the human. They echo each other’s thoughts that modernity is established as the natural behind with progress in the future and there is something in the middle, be that the medieval, modernity, or the Elsewhere. I believe they are both attempting to fuse medieval literature in 2022 through ecocriticism in creating the Elsewhere as an imagined place where we need to go to resolve our current ecological catastrophes. But while Purchase and Pollon are suggesting a theoretical understanding of the Elsewhere as a solution Dr Wallace Cleaves is offering tangible solutions.
Dr Wallace Cleaves from the University of California, Riverside, presented “Human-Nature: Stewardship and Kynde Relationality Between the Medieval Wilderness and the Indigenous Environment” as a plenary address at the Medieval Association of the Pacific conference. Cleaves focused on the word “kynde” as Chaucer uses it in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. He notes that it functions to mark important junctures within the text, but it also functions to understand nature or the non-human as inherent. Cleaves understands the value systems as Arthur’s Court representing the Christian system with capitalism while being exploitative to the non-human, and the Green Knight embodies the non-human but more importantly the stewardship of that environment. Cleaves defines the non-human as inherent and that continuity is a fact of nature/non-human. They compare this to the idea that because Arthur’s court is descended from the fall of Troy, the court is already inherently or naturally doomed. Stretching the argument further, if our current social, and societal structure is descended from Arthur then we are too destined for doom. This implies that the capitalistic endeavours and exploitation of the earth as already outlined are representative of Arthur’s court and are not only unsustainable but also what is leading us, as descendants, to ruin. But Cleaves does offer a solution, which is essentially what I am arguing as the Elsewhere, in the form of Indigenous stewardship of the environment. Cleaves compares Indigenous stewardship to the hunting scenes in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight by arguing that there is an inherent push and pull, give, and take, between the stewards of the environment and the environment itself. That the hunting outside of Arthur’s Court, is an act of balance, to take a little but respect that the environment needs time to rejuvenate. Cleaves argues for the personhood of all things which includes the natural or non-human. The value system that I would classify as the Elsewhere solution is Cleaves’ understanding of Indigenous stewardship. Cleaves explains that the reason there are so many fires in Los Angeles is that the human has strayed away from stewardship of the environment and that controlled burns that were prevalent before contact aren’t acceptable under the current value system. He also notes that Indigenous ways of knowing protected the forests by participating with its natural cycles such as when oak trees drop their seeds. Cleaves represents the Elsewhere as a solution, as a value system and one that has worked before and one that must be brought immediately into the now.
Purchase and Pollon present hybridity and a theory of the Elsewhere and therefore an ecocritical understanding and solution. Cleaves understands medieval oecologies as stewardship of the environment while recognizing the value systems that led to our current ecological disasters. While the Elsewhere is a theoretical imagined place, it also represents the solution. We can neither go back as Purchase points out, nor become pre-modern as Pollon states, but we cannot continue into a future where climate change and environmental catastrophes continue because there simply won’t be a place for humanity inside it. Cleaves understands that there is an immediate, tangible, solution that brings the Elsewhere out of the imagined and into the now through Indigenous stewardship of the environment.
Cleaves, Wallace. “Human-Nature: Stewardship and Kynde Relationality Between the Medieval Wilderness and the Indigenous Environment”. Medieval Association of the Pacific, April 22nd , 2022, Banff, AB.
Purchase, Samantha. “Ecologies and The Dream of the Rood.” Presentation to English 4410: Oecologies. Winter 2022.
Pollon, Logan. “Has Beowulf Been Modern? Unearthing and Examining Nature and Society in Beowulf”. Medieval Association of the Pacific, April 22nd , 2022, Banff, AB.
Scribner, Matthew. “Tree and Technology: Articulating the Ecological in ‘The Dream of the Rood’”. ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment 23.2 (Spring 2016), pp. 240-258, Accessed 2022-04-25.