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Humanities and science scholars explore the relationship between storytelling and our oceans

From the beginnings of civilization, oceans have been seen as barriers separating continents and cultures. In a shift of paradigms, however, Margaret Cohen, a professor in the Department of Comparative Literature at Stanford, has been studying how literary or fictional representations of the oceans serve as bridges between societies. 

A scholar of comparative literature, Cohen directs Visualizing the Oceans, a two-year pilot project that aims to create a space for interdisciplinary conversations about the “marine and maritime humanities,” said Cohen. As part of the program, Cohen has organized courses at the undergraduate and graduate level, as well as events funded by the Stanford Humanities Center and the Stanford Arts Institute.

The author of The Novel and the Sea, Cohen cites Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi as a key influence in the project’s development, helping her “imagine the waters from both a poetic or aesthetic and a pragmatic or practical perspective.”

Extending this dichotomy to explore how the ocean can be a space where literary scholars and scientists converge, Cohen organized an interdisciplinary panel discussion at Stanford entitled “The Oceans Today, from Environment to Narrative.” 

Historian Iain McCalman and Stanford scientist Stephen Palumbi and writer Anthony Palumbi, who co-authored a book about the study marine life, joined Cohen in a conversation about the powerful role that narrative and literature play in articulating the intricate and longstanding connections between people and oceans.   

McCalman, a professor of history at the University of Sidney, shared his impressions of the striking relationships formed between men, women and the 1,430 mile-long Great Barrier Reef off eastern Australia, as described in his new book, The Reef: A Passionate History.

Stephen Palumbi, a professor of Biology at Stanford, and Anthony Palumbi, a Stanford alum, freelance writer and programmer, brought a scientific perspective. The two are coauthors of The Extreme Life of the Sea, a book organized around dramatic examples that show the wonders of ocean biology at their most extreme.

Held on June 2nd, the event was co-sponsored by the Stanford Humanities Center, the Stanford Arts Institute, the Hopkins Marine Station, the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, and the Division of Literatures, Cultures, and Languages.

This event brought together authors “from very [diverse and] rigorous disciplines, reaching out to pursue an interdisciplinary conversation … to question the ocean and how to tell stories about the oceans… that engage our emotions,” said Cohen.

Telling the oceans’ stories


Oceans Today lecture at Stanford - audience and speakers
Historian Iain McCalman, Stanford scientist Stephen Palumbi, and writer Anthony Palumbi joined Stanford professor Margaret Cohen for an interdisciplinary panel discussion about the powerful role that narrative and literature play in articulating the intricate and longstanding connections between people and oceans.
Photo Credit: 
Steve Castillo
Since the Industrial Revolution, the human footprint on the world’s oceans has become increasingly prominent. Keenly aware of this trend, the panelists agreed on a key point: to increase awareness of and concern over human-made changes, someone needs to tell the ocean’s story, and tell it in a way that captivates rather than guilt-trips readers.

Indeed, Cohen introduced the evening’s program as “not only a celebration of two wonderful books, but a conversation about very disturbing [environmental] changes in our planet.” In addressing environmental change, one of the key challenges, Cohen points out, is “how to narrate planetary events at the level of the human scale,” a question central to both Cohen’s Visualizing the Oceans project and the work of the invited speakers.

Thus, for Anthony and Stephen Palumbi, The Extreme Life of the Sea needed to be “written with the philosophy of a sense of guiltless wonder about the ocean creatures,” engaging readers and providing them with the tools and the sense of connection necessary to appreciate and value marine ecosystems.
In a complementary approach, McCalman said that in his book, he sought to draw readers in by recounting the fascinating, interwoven stories of the human denizens, explorers, and defenders of the Great Barrier Reef. For example, he related how, during his first exploratory voyage to the Southern Hemisphere in 1770, the British explorer “Captain [James] Cook saw the reef as an insane labyrinth, threatening to sink or ruin their ship on a barren coast, inhabited – he thought– by man-eating cannibals. The reef was simply their idea of hell.”

In a sobering turn, McCalman added, “Captain Cook never would have imagined that this labyrinth of terror would come to be seen as a fragile treasure in desperate peril due to human actions.” Indeed, only if we understand how organisms live, and how they are influenced by humans, can we effectively design policies that help us to move forward. As an example of the oceans’ fragility, Stephen Palumbi mentioned, “some fishes can be 60 years old or 80 years old or even 100 years old. That means that you cannot really fish that population, because the replacement rate is slow.”  

Humans may be changing the ocean, but the reciprocal is also true: as Palumbi observed, “many problems in the world are a collection of smaller environmental problems in local [areas].” Thus, even small local communities, if sufficiently motivated and informed, can make significant progress towards halting damage to marine ecosystems. In this equation, both imaginative engagement and scientific fact play key roles. As McCalman states, the perilous situation of the oceans can indeed be tackled, as long as “we think and act holistically.”


View of ocean reef
Margaret Cohen, a professor in the Department of Comparative Literature at Stanford, has been studying how literary or fictional representations of the oceans serve as bridges between societies.
From the sciences to the humanities

During her introduction of the panelists, Cohen referred to British scientist and novelist C.P. Snow’s lecture The Two Cultures, in which he uses the ocean as a metaphor to describe the separation between scientists and literary scholars. “[Tonight,] we will have one of the most difficult divides to cross, [that is,] from basic sciences to the humanities,” Cohen observed.

Writing an engaging historical account of a natural feature such as the Reef, as McCalman has done, is no mean feat. But neither is it straightforward to present the ocean from a scientific angle, folding marine ecology facts into a narrative with broad appeal. In Cohen’s words, “It takes time, passion and generosity.”

Indeed, as Stephen Palumbi wryly noted, such a narrative should include science, but not too much science, because “it turns out that science can get in the way if you are not careful.” However, his goal was to “write a marine book without compromise,” skimping on neither scientific accuracy nor compulsive readability. 

Involving readers by, in Cohen’s words, “telling stories about the oceans that engage us,” evokes greater sympathy and personal investment, encouraging commitment and conservation. 

Among activities for year two of the Visualizing the Oceans Project, Cohen is planning to organize a conference on the “Underwater Worlds” for the spring of 2015. This conference will be a collaborative project with McCalman and Jonathan Lamb, a professor in the Department of English at Vanderbilt University, and will engage participants in a literary conversation about how people have imagined the oceans’ depths from the 19th century to the present.

Cuauhtémoc García-García is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Iberian and Latin American Cultures at Stanford.

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Corrie Goldman, director of humanities communication: (650) 724-8156,