Ground-Work: English Renaissance Literature and Soil ScienceEd. by Hillary Eklund $70.00
April 2017 | cloth | ISBN 978-0-8207-0499-9 | 330 pages
How does soil, as an ecological element, shape culture? With the sixteenth century shift in England from an agrarian economy to a trade economy, what changes do we see in representations of soil as reflected in the language and stories during that time? Ground-Work, the first collection of essays to seriously address such questions, belongs to the expanding field of early modernist ecology studies and brings much needed scholarly attention to the materiality of soil, covering a diverse array of Renaissance texts and range of topics — from agrarianism to land surveying to the peculiar allure of swamps.
The numerous connotations of the word “soil” in English point to important cultural ideas; “soil” may refer to property, identity, hygiene, flavor. From its earliest appearances in reference to the ground, or the face of the earth, the term’s meaning expanded during the early modern period. Amidst changing patterns of land use, contested political ideologies, and shifting religious beliefs, English Renaissance writers considered soil — ground, mould, earth, dust, mire, slime, peat, clay, etc. — not just as a material resource but as an opportunity to explore questions of power, knowledge, belonging, and being.
While “green” studies, animal studies, and new materialist readings of particular objects have recently been published, Ground-Work brings the methodologies and influences of such categories to bear on “brown” ecology, or the ecologies of soil. This substrate of so many other ecosystems, as Hillary Eklund asserts, deserves to feature in current debates about literature and the environment in early modernity. Contributors “dig up,” in a manner of speaking, centuries-old soils through the literary traces they have left, highlighting conceptions of soil both as symbol and as a feature of the physical world.
At its core, this volume aims to correct faulty assumptions that cloud our understanding of the ecological thinking of the past: that natural resources were then poorly understood and recklessly managed, that cultural practices developed in an adversarial relationship with natural processes, or that all forms of instability were regarded with suspicion. In moving past those assumptions, these essays elucidate the links between humans and the lands they inhabit, both then and now.
Hillary Eklund is associate professor of English at Loyola University New Orleans and the author of Literature and Moral Economy in the Early Modern Atlantic: Elegant Sufficiencies.