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Sea’s Slimy Things Tell Story of Environmental Change

8 August 2019 – From jelly fish to seaweed, Professor Christopher Pastore believes the history of the sea’s “rotten stuff” holds the answers to environmental change in the Atlantic world.

‘A thousand, thousand slimy things, a natural history of the sea from the bottom up’, not only looks at things like molluscs and eels, but charts the underrepresented actors in the early modern period who convey natural knowledge about the ocean: the women collecting seaweed in the west of Ireland; the enslaved wreck divers, or the Native American boatmen.

While the narrative of exploration and knowledge creation has been dominated by figures such as Columbus, Cabot, and other “movers and shakers of the Atlantic world”, early modern natural knowledge was also shaped significantly by lesser-known actors who helped in unravelling the mysteries of the sea.

A thousand, thousand slimy things

Christopher PastoreProfessor Christopher Pastore has been a Marie Skłodowska-Curie COFUND Fellow for 2018-19 at the Trinity Long Room Hub in association with Trinity’s Manuscript, Book and Print Cultures theme. Professor Pastore brings his expertise in biology, creative writing and history to bear on an exciting research project which takes its inspiration from Coleridge’s 1798 poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (‘Water, water, every where, Nor any drop to drink.’)

“The Mariner sails into the Southern Ocean and in an act of human hubris shoots an albatross, whereupon all hell breaks loose”, Professor Pastore explains. “The albatross is hung around his neck, which is where the famous saying comes from, the crew dies and turns into ghosts, and he’s left becalmed bobbing at sea with them.” Terrified, he sees a thousand, thousand slimy things rise up from the depths. Terrified, the mariner laments that his soul is "in agony” but in time, he sees these slimy creatures in a new light. “Blue, glossy green, and velvet black, They coiled and swam; and every track Was a flash of golden fire.”

Professor Pastore sees this flash of golden fire as a point of redemption which guides his project towards looking at how the ‘rise of slime’ in the ocean today indicates troubled waters for environmental change.

Rise of Slime

The term ‘rise of slime’ is attributed to marine ecologist Jeremy Jackson who talks about the effects that overfishing and pollution have had on the sea. “It’s allowing for these slimy things in the sea to rise up. In the same way the ancient mariner was looking down in dismay and his soul was in agony; what we’re seeing now is a thousand, thousand slimy things rise up again.”

“One of the things that is happening now are these algae blooms as a result of nutrient loading around the global ocean” says Professor Pastore, commenting on these ecological niches for jellyfish and algae to bloom.
In 2018, the largest biggest bloom of seaweed ever recorded stretched from the Gulf of Mexico to West Africa and is estimated to weigh 20 million tons. The seaweed has wreaked havoc on beaches, many in the Caribbean, where it has washed ashore.

Professor Pastore argues that the dominant idea about the ocean that has persisted over time is that the ocean is timeless, eternal and somehow exempt from the forces of history. “By looking at environmental change over time, we can see that the ocean actually does have a history – a human history – and sometimes that human history is shaped by mythology, sometimes it’s shaped by human actions such as overfishing, pollution and dumping which allow these algae blooms to occur.”

During his fellowship, Professor Pastore spoke about his research as part of the weekly Early Modern History Seminar series (see podcast below) and participated in the Behind the Headlines public discussion on Climate Change with Dr Francis Ludlow, Assistant Professor in Environmental History with Trinity’s Centre for Environmental Humanities. According to Professor Pastore, history has an important contribution to make to inter-disciplinary research on environmental change, “Strict scientific methodologies can’t do it alone. Careful reading of narrative sources, for example, can help us broaden the geographic and temporal scope of more quantitative studies. ”

 

Mermaids and Mystery

According to Professor Pastore, slimy things, whether they be eels or seaweed, tend to exist at the limits of natural knowledge. “Lurking” along the edges of the unknown, they have often been the subject of fear and mystery.

“There’s this sense that slime defies materiality so these are things that can often be confusing and evoke anxiety in explorers of the early modern period”, says Professor Pastore who examines mermaids and mermen in one of his early chapters. He describes this phenomena as a “symptom of the anxieties of what’s beyond the horizon”. Professor Pastore cites various accounts of mermaids off the coast of Newfoundland and even off the coast of Ireland.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the early modern period, before the formal structures of science had coalesced, there were informal networks of correspondence in which people communicated what they found, Professor Pastore explains, noting that not everyone was free in the contemporary sense, and many enslaved people contributed to the construction of knowledge, presumably, against their will. At times, he says, information was simply getting passed on or relayed to other people; American boat men were relaying stories of tidal currents and ocean creatures.

Mysterious “sea beans” that washed ashore along the west coast of Ireland and in the Hebrides in Scotland, were subject to numerous accounts of intrigue and legend. “There was a whole rich mythology around these things: if one drank from the sea bean it could lessen the pain of child birth. Other legends said they could help one conceive. People also wore them for luck”, Professor Pastore recounts.

People didn’t know where they came from, whether they were a plant or something else. Eventually, it was Sir Hans Sloane, Irish physician and naturalist, who had just written an extensive history of Jamaica and the Caribbean, who figured out that these mystical beans were from the West Indies –that they’d washed into the Gulfstream and were then carried by the North Atlantic Drift to the coast of Europe.

From Biology to History

Ireland, as an island with the ocean at its heart was an obvious draw for Professor Pastore to carry out his research on the Atlantic world, further to the maps and resources he could consult in Trinity’s library, the opportunity for him to experience the “rocky, grey shore” on this side of the Atlantic has given him a new perspective, he says.

Professor Pastore has always been fascinated with the ocean. From an early age, he was digging up critters and catching crap among the rocks, he says. Having grown up on the ocean, his parents lulled him to the sleep with the sound of an outboard engine. “I’ve always loved it; this is how I navigated life as a kid”, he says. A degree in biology was the natural path for Professor Pastore who however was faced with two choices upon graduation –working in a marine biology lab, or writing for a yacht racing magazine; having a life-long passion for sailing he chose to write stories and travel. Storytelling is ultimately why he pursued a PhD in History.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“I wanted to tell stories; that’s why I ended up pursuing history over literature or biology. I was more drawn to narrative than numbers”, Professor Pastore says.

He has spent much of his fellowship in the library revelling in the early printed books collection and trawling through the extensive list of European publications from smaller publishers in the Berkeley library – sources which he says are hard to come by in the US. He has also spent time looking at the Fagel Collection, an 18th century Dutch library acquired by Trinity College Dublin in 1802 and contributing to both the Making Ireland research theme and the Manuscript, Book and Print Cultures theme.

The inter-disciplinary focus of the Trinity Long Room Hub community has been particularly stimulating during his research fellowship.

Not only has the time and space to work on the chapters of the book been a ‘gift’, but the new people and ideas he has encountered is something that has resonated with him, particularly his engagement with the 50 PhD and post-doctoral students who are resident in the Hub. “The doctoral students have been incredibly helpful because they have given me suggestions for books and papers and there is a lively community to discuss things with.”

It’s this exchange of ideas that has enriched Professor Pastore’s fellowship in Trinity and ultimately it’s this exchange of ideas that is central to his forthcoming book exploring knowledge creation in the early Atlantic world, from the bottom up.  

Christopher L. Pastore is Associate Professor of History at the University at Albany, State University of New York, and was a Marie Skłodowska-Curie COFUND Fellow for 2018-19. Cofunded by the Horizon 2020 Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions, this fellowship scheme builds on the Trinity Long Room Hub’s existing Visiting Research Fellowship programme which has hosted over 140 fellows to date. Between October 2017 and September 2020, the programme will appoint 9 fellows for a period of twelve months each over the course of 3 calls (1 call per year).

 

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