Hillary Eklund, ed, Ground-Work: English Renaissance Literature and Soil Science

Hillary Eklund, ed, Ground-Work: English Renaissance Literature and Soil Science (PIttsburgh: Duquesne University Press 2017) 330 pp. $70.00 Hb. ISBN: 978-0-8207-0499-9

How often do we pay attention to the detritus below our feet? How frequently do we consider the materiality and deep metaphorical reservoirs of the earth upon which we walk? If these questions evoke skepticism or even bemusement, Ground-Work: English Renaissance Literature and Soil Science proves these reactions misguided. Instead, the collection serves as an evocative call for directing our consideration to the intimate relationships among humans and soil. In tracing the complex history and literary representations of soil science, this edited collection serves as an important critical analysis of the soil and the matter too often beneath our humanistic upward gaze, supplying in the process a bridge between – and challenge to – ecocritical studies of the 'green' and scholarship on a range of topics within literature and the environment. As editor Hillary Eklund eloquently articulates the pressing need for such a study, soil 'is a means for us to understand the human within complex networks of involvement that challenge the boundedness of embodied selves and, accordingly, require us to look not just around but also below' (5). This is particularly the case in the early modern era, in which individuals were 'closer' to the ground and relied upon its health for food production, mining practices, and property demarcations. Ground-Work is a significant step in the critical direction of understanding more thoroughly the multivalence of soil's role in sixteenth and seventeenth century epistemic landscapes. In calling for a scholarly examination of early modern soil science, this collection reconfigures our understanding of past, present, and future interventions in the materiality and exigency of the land.

Eklund’s introduction begins with a discussion of Hamlet, pointing to the play’s fascination with dirt at many junctures in the drama. Noting the critical gap in ecocritical scholarship relative to soil, Eklund points to three interlocking subjects – materiality, place, and temporality. Each essay in the collection touches on one or more of these topics, demonstrating how considering soil can refigure our notions of early modern temporalities, or, for instance, labor practices. Eklund’s primary claim, however, is that these elements of soil suggest that soil making is, in turn, a process of knowledge making, a scientia of much larger implications in the period than previous scholarship has recognized. In paying attention to early modern authors’ careful attention to soil, we uncover a diverse host of genres and authors reconfiguring soil as a means for thinking through human agency and environmental causation or practices of human habitation in different locales.

Frances E Dolan’s contribution turns to the early modern practice of composting and practices of soil amendment. Offering a discussion of the linkages between composting as a method of soil improvement and composition as a literary and textual means for producing knowledge, Dolan uncovers different valuations of mixing, recycling, and combining in a range of early modern genres. Similarly, Tamsin Badcoe’s essay highlights the range of discourses in Richard Carew’s Survey of Cornwall (1602), a topographical work that performs 'a generous curiosity, which exceeds the purely economic, in the peculiarity and texture of littoral matters' (46). Both opening essays suggest that authors in the period borrowed from a range of literary and historical sources in discussions of the soil, moving among 'high' and 'low' matter in their depictions of the land or in their gathering of literary material.

Bonnie Lander Johnson offers an insightful reading of Richard II in the context of an under-studied archive: the early modern almanac. Here, the practice of reading almanacs is reflected in the play’s extended desire for hierarchical control and order, a reading of the environment that extends from the play’s protagonist to the gardener. Revisiting the topos of the soil as feminized body, Johnson shows how this new archive provides a provocative lens for reading the ultimately incomplete mastery over nature that characters in the play nonetheless attempt to wield. Lindsay Ann Reid also discusses the female body in the context of the spontaneous generation of Belphoebe and Amoret in Book Three, Canto 6 of Spenser’s Faerie Queene. Arguing for a new understanding of Chrysogone’s miraculous pregnancy as a potential rape, Reid offers a reading of this moment 'as a site for rethinking reproduction along both ethical and ecological lines,' which thus challenges any neat binary between lust and chastity in Spenser’s epic (81).

Like Reid’s focus on the place of Chrysogone’s spontaneous generation, Rob Wakeman’s contribution also considers the specificity of the ground in a consideration of the Chester and Towneley shepherds’ plays. As Wakeman shows, these plays evoke the contemporary agricultural and economic conditions of Northern England. The same political register is noted in Keith M. Botelho’s essay on another group of texts with a theological and political impetus: the works of Gerrard Winstanley as part of the Digger movement on St. George’s Hill. Following Steve Mentz’s call for a 'brown cultural studies,' Botelho maps the Diggers’ close intimacy with the soil and the ground it provided for articulating social and political change (118). Randall Martin’s work revisits Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2 to address how the playwright 'juxtaposes the regenerative land ethic of georgic husbandry against gunpowder’s transnational destruction of regional soil integrity and community subsistence' (129). Martin maps the deep conflict between war’s destructive practices upon the land – including the need to excavate local farms for saltpeter – and the consequently damaged or lost agrarian images of the nation’s health.

Another type of soil, the soggy wetlands, is featured in Eklund’s essay, which traces the disparate ideologies of wetlands and the inhabitants of these liminal spaces. In a reading of Richard Brome’s The Sparagus Garden (1635), Eklund shows how contemporary land reclamation attempts were accompanied by 'a palpable sense of loss' (150). David B Goldstein turns to another mode of human interaction with the land, here focusing on the different meanings of 'manuring' in Milton’s Paradise Lost. Goldstein argues that with the introduction of manure and other offal into Eden through Satan and his cohort, the human act of working the land takes on new meaning, resonating with notions of grace and repentance. Finally, Sharon O’Dair’s afterword offers both a reflection on the essays and a look forward to twenty-first-century methods for thinking through and caring for our environments. As O’Dair so trenchantly puts it, '[a]s with literary texts, interpretation of the soil varies from observer to observer, suggesting contestation and agency but also collaboration with, or even subjection to, the nonhuman' (197). This accounts in part for the diversity of perspectives offered in Ground-Work, in which the plot of a rich collective history of soil is laid but not fully excavated. Instead, Ground-Work represents an initial gesture in what should become an ongoing critical and political conversation.

Katherine Walker, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill