Notes from the ASLE Conference in Davis, California

ASLE is the Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment. Every other year, the organization hosts a conference; this year it was at the University of California at Davis, and we drove down to participate. I’m told there were more than 1,200 attendees, a conference record, and a sign that environmental literature is coming into its own.

We hosted an Ashland Creek Press table and, seen below, Midge Raymond poses with Katy Yocom’s forthcoming novel Three Ways to Disappear, winner of the Siskiyou Prize.

Midge and I participated in a panel called Writing With Animals, organized by Marybeth Holleman (a contributor to Writing About Animals). Also participating was our friend and amazing poet Gretchen Primack. We also met Jenni Moody, who presented on her novel in progress, and Noreen McAuliffe, who presented on the Taimen, the “River Wolf,” of Mongolia.

As readers of EcoLit Books probably know quite well by now, we’re proponents of “New Environmental Writing.” And what do we mean by this, exactly? Quite simply, it means we value writing that places human and non-human animals on equal footing. Historically, nature writing too often placed the human in the center, or at the top and, to make matters worse, featured fishing or hunting as the means of “connecting” with nature.

I was happy to meet a number of writers and educators at the conference who feel the same way as we do about new environmental writing. While vegans may still be in the minority at this event (as at so many others), we are a vocal minority and we’re gaining ground, in part because environmentalists are finally making the connection between animal agriculture and climate change, rainforest devastation, endangered species, and so on. It was great to see many environmentalists at this conference who truly get it — that is, who are vegan.

I attended the session Doing Vegan Studies, chaired by Laura Wright, author of The Vegan Studies Project and editor of Through a Vegan Studies Lens. She talked about ecofeminism and vegan studies, followed by Kathryn Kirkpatrick, who talked about the significant flaws in “locavore writing,” specifically Michael Pollen’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Beth Keefauver spoke on her research on how vegans are portrayed in advertising, and how this reflects society at large.

There were too many sessions and too little time. But I also made it to a panel called Ecocriticsm and the Anthropocene in 19th Century Art and Visual Culture. Despite the rather intimidating title, I learned quite a lot in this panel, such as the story of the first whale displayed in captivity, presented by Kelly Bushnell. The year was 1877 and she was a Beluga whale, displayed in a horribly cramped swimming pool. The whale died four days later. How pathetic to think how little has changed in the past 140 years.

But that’s why we’re writing, that’s why Ashland Creek Press is publishing, and that’s why EcoLit books is blogging.

And that’s why I so enjoyed this conference.

I was also pleased to see so many people fall in love with our Read Like You Give a Damn T-shirts. Many would walk by, glimpse it, and smile — and by the end of the day, they’d return to buy one. By the end of the event I noticed several people proudly wearing their cool new shirts. Whether participants were scholars, students, or creative writers, this is a message that speaks to what we all do.

Finally, I have to say how impressed I was with the town of Davis and the UC Davis campus.

The campus features a mile-long arboretum that follows a creek and features a wealth of native and exotic plants. Now this is a college campus I could get lost in…

I wish I could have spent more time just wandering around.

Now that’s the conference is over and we’re back home and slowly catching up on email, I can confidently say that this event won’t be our last.

Until next time…