Blue Nature

Blue Nature Abstracts

Session I: The Nature of Blue

Chair: Catherine Walsh

“The Philosophy of Color,” Stefan Forrester, Associate Professor of Philosophy and English, Department of English and Foreign Languages

When you look at something, say, a blue cup, is the color you see in the cup itself, or is the blueness just something you perceive? To ask this another way, where do colors like “blue” exist? Purely in our minds? Purely in the world outside our minds? Both? If blue exists in both places, how can we know that the blue we perceive corresponds to the true color in the world outside our perceptions? How do we account for the fact that not everyone sees the same colors when they look at the same object? Questions like these about the nature of color and color perceptions have troubled philosophers and physicists since at least the time of Rene Descartes and Galileo Galilei in the17th century.

“The Google Earth Blue Marble Blues,” Amy Feger, Artist and Instructor, Department of Art

My life and my work are situated on the cusp of “The Information Age” and “The Anthropocene.”  I am compelled to create landscape paintings through the filtered lens of virtual reality to examine the environmental, aesthetic, and social impact of climate change. Critical narratives written by contemporary authors like Rebecca Solnit, Lucy Lippard, and Donna Haraway challenge and nourish my creative mind, to enable a rich fabric of ideas for my paintings. In my presentation, I will tease out significant blue threads in my recent paintings that weave narratives from my observations in the natural world, our human condition, and the virtual reality that is Google Earth. Observations that mingle and coalesce with theory and current events in the web and personal algorithm of my mind’s eye.

“BLACK AND BLUE: The Bruises and Blessings of Coal along Alabama’s Waterways,” James S. Day, Michael J. Grainger Professor in Modern History, Department of Behavioral and Social Sciences

Although much maligned in today’s environmentally conscious world, the coal mining industry continues to influence America’s economy and way of life. Additionally, Alabama’s dammed waterways produce hydro-electric power that drives the state’s infrastructure. On the other hand, outdoor enthusiasts and Riverkeeper organizations remain vigilant in their efforts to preserve the state’s free-flowing rivers and streams. Even so, a leisurely float down the Black Warrior, Cahaba, or Coosa Rivers reveals many of the scars of extraction processes in days gone by. Abandoned mine openings contrast sharply with rippling shoals, aquatic plants, waterfowl, and wildlife. In fact, coal provided a source of livelihood for thousands of Alabamians from the mid-19th through the 20th century. Hundreds of mining camps and company towns became home for miners and their families. Schools, churches, fraternal organizations, and communities thrived as “black diamonds” fueled iron production, railroad expansion, home heating, and more. Now on the wane in 21st-century Alabama, coal production has made an indelible imprint—for both good and ill–on the state’s history.

Session II: The Blue in Between

Chair: Kelly Wacker

“Rivers as Liminal Spaces in Late Medieval Public Poetry,” Valerie B. Johnson, Assistant Professor of English, Department of English and Foreign Languages

Jeffrey Jerome Cohen describes a “grey ecology” as an ecocritical approach that refuses the artificial separation between nature and culture. This grey ecology is present but under examined in late medieval public poetry. While significant attention has been given to general terrestrial or maritime language and symbolism used by John Gower (Confessio Amantis) and Geoffrey Chaucer (The Canterbury Tales) in their great 14th century Middle English poems, less attention has been directed to the liminal poetic qualities of the fluvial waters of rivers, lakes, and streams. This presentation will demonstrate that waters are a means to explore what each poet might consider England and English-ness: where the island ends and the waters begin is an identity boundary that lends itself to poetic invention.

“Blue Earth in/between Sea and Sky in Early Modern Italian Paintings,” Catherine Walsh, Assistant Professor of Art History, Department of Art

This paper explores relationships between geological substances, such as lapis lazuli and azurite, and their work representing figure and ground in early modern Italian landscape paintings. Using an ecomaterial lens, I examine how the materials  — blue earth — forge elemental connections between celestial, aquatic, and terrestrial realms while also providing means to differentiate between these realms and their inhabitants. Attending to the ecology of blue earth in these paintings opens up new ways of understanding figure-ground and human-earth relationships in early modern art


Session III: Blue Fiction

Chair: Valerie Johnson

“Sea as Blue as the Bluest Cornflower: Land, Sea, and the Agency of the Uncanny Body in Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid,”” Samantha Webb, Professor of English, Department of English and Foreign Languages

Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid” offers an opportunity to think about bodies and their environments in the context of the “blue humanities,” not only because the color blue suffuses the story, but also because the little mermaid’s occupation of two separate spatial realms means that she uncannily occupies two bodily identities: mermaid and human.

The mermaid longs to leave the sea to obtain a soul, something only humans have (according to her grandmother). For this quest, she will need a human to fall in love with and marry her. This desire, along with other aspects about her, render her explicitly “strange” to her fellow mermaids, making her uncanny in the uncannily-described undersea kingdom. Moreover, her quest for a soul leads her to make a potentially hasty bargain with the sea witch that involves cutting out her tongue, and agreeing to live in physical agony when she walks on human legs. These physical sacrifices for a life on land estrange the mermaid from the human world she has desired to enter, and arguably, handicap her quest for a soul.

These insistent de-familiarizations of the mermaid—Andersen’s refusals to make her fit—have been read as nineteenth-century gender ideology: the mermaid presents as a submissive woman who will pursue a man at all costs. However, in light of recent insights of “blue ecocriticism,” I argue that, first, the story allows us to view the sea kingdom and land kingdom as deeply connected through tropes and myths of mermaids and sirens, something the story supports. Second, and more importantly, I read the character’s refusal to fit as an instance of the ways in which fantasy literature (in this case, fairy tale) draws us away from anthropocentrism in ways that can be healthy and necessary. That the mermaid is essentially compelled to fit into the human world, and is rendered voiceless in what turns out to be a hierarchical, ableist realm, speaks to a kind of willful lack of understanding between the human and the non-human, between the land and the sea. This lack of understanding is personified by the prince in the story, who represents anthropocentrism, and dismisses as pet-like that which does not “fit.” My paper will explore a reading of the mermaid that seeks to claim her uncanniness as a mode of agency within the bifurcated environments in which she moves.

“Finding Hydra,”Professor of English, Department of English and Foreign Languages

Southern Neogothic literature is drawn to women emerging from fresh water. From modern classic Beloved to horror feature Jessabelle, the genre uses inland lakes and rivers to create literary spaces where women, “no longer powerless, undertake their own inner journeys” of “self-exploration and personal discovery” (Stein, Female Gothic 126). Novelists Toni Morrison, Michael McDowell, and Caitlín Kiernan draw from mythical Melusines, mermaids, kelpies, and Lovecraftian deep ones to offer striking new models for contemporary Gothic women. The moment of re-emergence for the Hydra is one born of ecological and human desecration, and the aquatic revenant claims new shapes to become the lost object of ecology and emissary of the Chthulucene. The Hydra is thus an ecofeminist monster. She does not wish to rule within corporate, scientific, or technological regimes of authority: she drowns them. As water creature, she floods normative landscapes and economic structures that would harm women, non-whites, the poor, and the earth. Hydra conceives ecology as a rebuke of subordination because she, like U.S. streams and rivers, can never be owned.

Session IV: Teaching and Learning Blue

Chair: Collin Williams

“AZZA: Cross-disciplinary explorations between art and zoology,” Kelly Wacker, Professor of Art History, Department of Art, and Katherine Murray, BFA ’20, Art

Art historian Dr. Kelly Wacker will present an overview of AZZA, the shorthand designation for two integrated cross-disciplinary courses (Art and Zoology | Zoology and Art) conceived and co-taught with biologist Dr. Jill Wicknick in Fall 2019. Students from two separate disciplines came together in a hybridized learning environment that merged art history and observational drawing with biological identification and natural history of Alabama insects and birds. In the process, students and instructors found themselves looking into blue skies and getting their feet wet in the blue bodies of our watershed—local wetlands, creeks, and the Gulf of Mexico.

“Blue in Environmental Studies: art, adventure, and advocacy,” Susan Caplow, Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies, Department of Behavioral and Social Sciences, with Sierra Bobo, BS ’21, Environmental Studies, and Hunter Watson, BS ’20, Environmental Studies

In 2019, the Environmental Studies program offered two opportunities for students at Montevallo to explore the concept of Blue Nature. First, Susan Caplow (ES) and Karen Graffeo (ART) co-taught a class titled, “Blue Planet: Water, survival, and artistic expression.” Second, Susan Caplow and Meredith Tetloff (SWK) took a group of 16 students to the Florida Keys for a week in December for a class titled, “Coastal Conservation Education.” For this presentation, Dr. Caplow will first describe the structure of each of these experiences, including key texts, activities, and assignments. Then she will consider the impact of these experiences on student learning and professional development. Finally, Sierra and Hunter, two Environmental Studies majors who participated in both courses, will discuss their experiences, consider how these opportunities enhanced their experience at UM, and present/interpret their photography work.

Folk History Surrounding Alabama Waters, Sara Walley, BA ‘20, History

Alabama folk history has been interweaved with Alabama waters for centuries. This research examines Mississippian culture, Spanish exploration, Industrialism, and present-day conditions to trace the meaning of water to Alabamians throughout time. The economy of regions surrounding different rivers impacted the folk history of people in the state. This reveals the intrinsic value different groups placed on the region’s waterways and their amenities. By comparing the different ethnic and social groups of Alabama, as well as the different watersheds and regions themselves, it becomes possible to explain behavioral differences towards said waterways. Prehistoric artifacts, music, food, and folk legends all combine to make up the unique ethnohistory of the state. One may see how the future of Alabama waterways may be affected as well, since this cultural history provides a backbone on which Alabama residents can rely.

Roundtable: Past, Present, and Future of Local Water Resources

Moderator: Susan Caplow

The roundtable brings together scholars, students, advocates, and water management professionals to discuss, among other potential topics, the management of water resources; environmental and social justice challenges confronted by their management; the current condition of Montevallo/Shelby County/Alabama wetscapes like Shoal Creek, Ebenezer Swamp, and the Cahaba River; and the future of these resources. The roundtable presents an opportunity for audience participants to make connections between the scholarly and artistic approaches to water, wetscapes, and blue nature presented in the first portion of the colloquium and the real, palpable concerns we have about local water resources. We hope this roundtable may encourage reflection upon the colloquium’s big themes: the history of wetscapes, both globally and locally; the environmental imagination as it pertains to water; scholarly, creative, and pedagogical approaches to aforementioned issues; and public-facing education, outreach, policy, practice, and stewardship pertaining to water resources.


“Confounding Mastery in Early Modern Wetlands,” Hillary Eklund, Provost Distinguished Professor of English, Loyola University New Orleans

Long before the refrain “drain the swamp” was popularized in U. S. political discourse, wetlands were often represented as nature’s mistakes, landscapes that time forgot, rotten blemishes on the face of the earth. So commonplace are these associations that they slide even into metaphor, as works by Dante, Milton, and Shakespeare bear out. Wetlands, these writings suggest, are slow, inefficient, and aesthetically outside what we are conditioned to find beautiful. In their mixture of slow moving waters and soft soils, wetlands tend also to be cast as obstacles to human movement and progress. This talk surveys early representations of wetlands in the colonial Atlantic world, where the stubborn slowness of wetlands runs athwart the fast violence of conquest, the circulation of dominant cultural and religious attitudes, and imperatives for technological progress. Focusing on the Inca Garcilaso de la Vega’s popular account of Hernando de Soto’s voyage through Florida, published in 1605, it describes how Spanish explorers respond to their experience of getting stuck in swamps, and how the wetlands and their inhabitants undermine Spanish colonial designs. Wetlands’ resistance and resilience, despite centuries of human efforts to eradicate them, may teach us to envision a more fertile future for the planet and ourselves.