On November 17, 2022, in the ornate “Venetian Room” of the Drake Hotel in Chicago, historians of oceans and of oceanography gathered for the “Oceans in Depth: Knowledge, Resource, Representations” round table as occasional flakes of snow fell on the Lake Michigan beaches outside the window. Organized by Helen Rozwadowski and Katharine Anderson for the annual History of Science Society conference, the round table served as an introduction to the new “Oceans in Depth” book series from University of Chicago Press, with Karen Darling as the acquiring editor and Anderson and Rozwadowski as series editors. Introducing the panel, Helen Rozwadowski, Professor of History and Maritime Studies at the University of Connecticut and current president of the ICHO, presented the main objectives of the “Oceans in Depth” series: to recognize the urgency of understanding past human relationships with the oceans, both surface and depth; to build fuller accounts of ocean history through a variety of disciplines and perspectives; and finally, to attend to the representations and imaginaries of the oceans as well as the material resources they contain. Building on Rozwadowski’s introduction, Katharine Anderson, Professor in Humanities at York University in Toronto, centered her talk on the “modern ocean” of the early twentieth century, and used that backdrop to discuss many of the challenges that past and current ocean scholars face. The large scale of ocean studies, whether scientific or humanistic, and their inherently interdisciplinary nature can often make it difficult to find an audience for the stories that we want to tell.
One of the reasons the “Oceans in Depth” round table and book series are so necessary is because they provide venues for scholars to tell the kinds of stories that ocean history demands. At the History of Science Society conference in Chicago, four early career researchers offered snippets of their own interdisciplinary research, which spans the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Natalia Gándara, a postdoctoral researcher at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Valparaíso and fellow at the John Carter Brown research library in Providence, Rhode Island, presented on “a forest like no other,” demonstrating how Patagonia’s giant kelp forests transformed from a place of fear and danger to a rich, complex, and, most importantly, knowable world in the 1820s. Kimia Shahi, a Kernan Brothers Environmental Fellow at Harvard University and Assistant Professor of Art History at the University of Southern California, used the concept of the “sea-eye” to discuss how experiential knowledge of the sea and sailing informed maritime paintings like those of famed Philadelphia artist Thomas Eakins. Katherine Sinclair, a doctoral candidate in history at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, showed how the potential of hydrocarbon reserves in the underwater Kerguelen Plateau influenced the French position in negotiation over the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea in the 1970s. Finally, Alison Glassie, a lecturer in history and literature at Harvard University, analyzed Carlyle Brown’s 2016 play Finding Fish to connect embodied knowledge of fishers along the Maine Coast to selkie mythologies and ocean ecosystem collapse. As Helen Rozwadowski highlighted in her introduction to the round table, each of the papers engaged with knowledge of and from the oceans. Each paper also transcended disciplinary boundaries in a way that is quite common for the field of ocean history, but becomes less legible in other disciplines. The round table finished with a lively Q&A session from the well-attended panel, where audience members continued to grapple with themes of knowledge, framing, and scale that each presentation introduced.
Through a happy accident of scheduling, the “Oceans in Depth” round table was one of the first panels scheduled on the first day of the conference. Conference presenters were free to enjoy the rest of the weekend in Chicago, where temperatures hovered below freezing for days and the entire Magnificent Mile was already decked out for Christmas. We attended other brilliant conference panels and showed up in force at the Earth & Environment Forum morning meeting. We celebrated Lynn Nyhart’s retirement at a special reception in her honor. We also explored nearby restaurants, and owe special thanks to Velvet Taco and Hendrickx Belgian Bakery – the site of multiple delicious group meals. On Saturday night, ICHO members and ocean scholars gathered outside the Drake Hotel to catch the Magnificent Mile Lights Festival parade, where high school marching bands braved freezing temperatures, and icy winds threatened to take control of parade balloons. Throughout our stay in Chicago, we kept up a lively camaraderie and had many fruitful conversations about ocean studies. Our time together at the History of Science Society conference left us feeling energized about our work and paved the way for many future collaborations.