© Joshua Hoehne on Unsplash
Transnational discussions of the climate crisis generally use English as a primary language so as to facilitate direct communication among a high number of stakeholders. The primacy of English is clear for the likes of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (“version complète disponible en anglais seulement,” the French list of publications indicates) and the upcoming UN climate summit in Glasgow (the Italian site shows headings in English). In such instances, translations into other languages tend to be limited, if available at all. However, ecological processes are entangled with a range of cultural issues that touch on different regional and national languages. We therefore believe that multilingualism should be an important feature of research into interactions between the human and the more-than-human.
An English-speaking worldview entails a set of attitudes and beliefs that can end up overwriting cultural values in geographical contexts where expression comes in myriad languages and dialects. This problem is not absent from the environmental humanities, despite a strong global outlook and high levels of transnational work. Indeed, the field’s exponential growth over the past two decades has been enabled by roots in the largely English-speaking landscape of higher education in Australia, the United States, and Europe. Even where scholarly institutions are looking to engage young people who have deep concerns about the climate crisis, under- and postgraduate courses addressing the “wicked problems” of our time are almost exclusively in English.
A think-piece by twenty-three international authors on “Teaching the Environmental Humanities: International Perspectives and Practices” (Environmental Humanities, 2019) highlights the extent to which the field draws on texts and programmes developed in English by eminent establishments in Australia, Germany, the UK, and the USA (e.g. Bath Spa University, the Rachel Carson Center, the University of Pennsylvania, or the University of Sydney). This monolingualism is not limited to higher education: in 2014, Oslo’s high-profile Future Library (the website is only available in English) chose two English novels to launch its endeavour whereby sealed manuscripts will be held in an archive while trees planted nearby grow to provide the paper for printing them in 2114. This choice cements the assumption that English literary culture will continue to dominate the globe in the longer term.
The disadvantages of the dominance of English in environmental discussions have not gone unnoticed. In Forget English! Orientalisms and World Literatures (Harvard University Press, 2016), Aamir Mufti underlines the problem of a prestige culture when it comes to thinking globally: “there is a genuine question […] about our ability to speak of ‘the one world’ from the perch of the academy in the North Atlantic zone and about what forms of attention precisely to the world outside this zone are consequently called for.” According to Natalie Eppelsheimer, Uwe Küchler, and Charlotte Melin in “Claiming the Language Ecotone: Translinguality, Resilience, and the Environmental Humanities” (Resilience, 2014), “resilience is in fundamental ways inseparable from the indelible ecotone of language and culture.” Unfortunately, such realisations and advocacy have yet to lead to languages other than English being integrated into high-profile events and publications in the environmental humanities, such as the Environmental Humanities Summit in Munich (2018) or STREAMS in Stockholm (2021). On a more encouraging note, the open-access journal Ecozon@ has long accepted contributions in French/German/Italian/Spanish, and the journal Global Environment is now soliciting translations of abstracts. The latter move highlights not only the importance of research being accessible beyond the anglosphere, but also the skills of the many researchers who routinely work across languages. When all is said and done, though, the content of both journals is mostly in English. Where might solutions to such a linguistic monoculture be found?
Within the environmental humanities, scholars working ecocritically on literatures in many languages come together through the European Association for the Study of Literature, Culture, and the Environment (EASLCE), even if most people turn to English as a working language by necessity when meeting internationally. Indeed, it can be difficult to get away from ecocriticism’s deep roots in English-language modes of “nature writing” that often eclipse related traditions in Romance, Germanic, Nordic, and Slavic literatures, as well as numerous smaller languages and dialects—most of which come under consideration only when translated into English. Ecocritical scholars are nevertheless in a strong position to take forward multilingual research and publications based on an expert appreciation of the power of words. Through greater attention to the diversity of ways of communicating life-worlds, the research ecosystem could become more inclusive, resilient, and fruitful for all concerned. With that in mind, this article’s authors—in cooperation with a range of up-and-coming members of EASLCE—recently applied for funding for a multilingual early career network geared toward working creatively in a transnational framework beyond expression in English…
In the roundtable discussion below, recorded at the Rachel Carson Center in mid-2020 during a lull in the COVID-19 pandemic, four scholars share thoughts on the environmental humanities in relation to languages other than English. The conversation between Roberta Biasillo, Dan Finch-Race, Kate Rigby, and Katie Ritson covers intellectual and infrastructural issues to do with anglo-dominance, and suggests ways of integrating robust multilingualism in research and writing practices—all while acutely aware of the irony of conversing in English about the impetus for greater multilingualism in the environmental humanities!
About the authors:
Dan Finch-Race (Ca’ Foscari University, Venice) researches French and Italian literature and art. Katie Ritson (Rachel Carson Center, Munich) researches Scandinavian and German literature. They share an ecocritical background, a mother tongue (English), and a deep appreciation of the learning that is fundamental to working in a foreign language.
The authors would like to thank RCC research assistant Charlotte Huber for her meticulous and patient video editing.
Mount Eagle seen from Dunmore Head. © Matthias Egeler
We are standing on the headland of Dunmore Head on the western edge of Dingle Peninsula, on the western edge of Ireland, on the western edge of Europe. One moment, the slope is speckled with light, the next it is in the shadow of a heavy rain cloud. Then the winds push away the rain leaving behind a sparkling rainbow that disappears after five minutes. Repeat. We turn the collars of our coats up, but the winds coming in from the Atlantic find a way through everything, and so does the rain that comes and goes every couple of minutes. Above us rises Mount Eagle, and to our west a small group of islands form the last tiny patches of land before the vastness of the ocean. Uninhabited since the 1950s, the Blasket Islands are the home of sea birds, sheep, and flocks of tourists with a taste for the literary history of the Gaelic language.
Ever optimistic, we drive on to nearby Dunquin Pier, where the ferries leave to the Great Blasket—or An Blascaod Mór in the original Gaelic—which is the main island of the group. The access road to the slipway has to corkscrew around a wall of rock that juts out of the cliff face, almost completely doubling in on itself before, down by the water, it turns back out again towards the pier and the ocean. When we reach the pier, there are no sailings. The sea is too high for boats to cross to the Great Blasket on that day.
Being cut off from the mainland by some three miles of tempestuous sea, sometimes for weeks at a time, was a common experience for the Great Blasket community. Sustainable island life was challenged further by the precarious economy of the local fishing trade. The daily catch was brought to the mainland and sold in the Dingle peninsula’s merchant town. Here fish prices fluctuated and even a good catch could turn out to be worthless. On one bitterly remembered occasion in 1921, the island’s fleet of small open fishing boats made a phenomenal catch. Yet as the islander Tomás O’Crohan noted in his Island Cross-Talk: Pages from a Blasket Island Diary: “[n]ot a single sixpence reached the Island out of that day’s fishing, although every currach there was loaded to the gunwhale.” For when the fishermen reached the mainland, they found that the day’s value of fish would not even cover the cost of transport to Dingle. At the same time, the islanders could not afford the shopkeepers’ price for salt. Unable to either sell or preserve their catch, they threw the dead fish back into the sea, and not many kind words were said about the merchants of Dingle .
The rise of deep-sea trawlers in the twentieth century gave the local fishing trade and community its finishing blow. These new trawlers not only emptied the sea; their industrial efficiency made it impossible for local fishermen to compete in their small, traditionally made wooden currachs . The photograph, taken by the Irish Literary Revivalist John Millington Synge in 1905 during his visit to the Great Blasket, shows a group of island men mending or building one of these light boats made from tarred canvas over a framework of wooden struts. Two young boys take part in the activity, likely to learn a craft that was passed on from generation to generation . At the time the photograph was taken, there were still some 150 inhabitants on the Great Blasket, but numbers dropped sharply over the course of the first half of the century. In 1953, the Irish government resettled the last remaining islanders to the mainland . Today, all but a handful of the old houses are in ruins.
Industrial overfishing resulted not only in damage to the marine ecosystem and the collapse of the traditional fishing community but also in the loss of a coastal vernacular and culture of storytelling. In early twentieth-century Ireland, the Great Blasket was one of the most prominent refugia of the Gaelic language. Prominent Gaelic scholars such as Yorkshire-born Robin Flower and the Norwegian Carl Marstrander flocked to the Great Blasket to learn Irish, to record the islanders’ stories, and to encourage their local teachers to write books of their own. This encouragement bore rich fruit and, from the 1920s onwards, several islanders wrote a whole little library of books about their lives. Starting with Tomás O’Crohan’s Island Cross-Talk (1928) (Allagar na hInise in the original Irish), these books made the Blasket community probably one of the best-documented small-island communities of their time.
Micheál O’Guiheen, son of the ‘queen of Gaelic storytelling’ Peig Sayers, belonged to the last generation of islanders to live on the Great Blasket . Nicknamed ‘The Poet,’ his lyrical stanzas express his love for the Great Blasket and its nature, describing the beauty of marine life while at the same time lamenting the end of the island’s fishing culture. In his autobiography, A Pity Youth Does not Last, penned shortly before he and his mother moved to the mainland in 1942, Micheál tells both the story of the extinction of a way of life and of the degradation of its natural environment. Repeatedly, his literary eye gravitates towards Sliabh an Iolair, ‘Mount Eagle,’ the coastal mountain that directly faces the Great Blasket.
Micheál, as a young boy, was curious about the mountain’s name and retells the story behind the place name as he learned it from his mother. “That mountain,” Peig told him, “was full of eagles in my young days, though there isn’t one of them left now. There is a great lake on top of it and there used to be an eagle’s nest in the cliff above the lake. But it is a long time now since there was an eagle’s nest there.”  The “last one”  was caught by a woman from Ventry, which lies about halfway to Dingle, the local trading center further east on the peninsula whose merchants were notorious among the islanders for their rapacity . The Ventry woman caught the eagle when it was washing itself in the lake; creeping up on the bird, she used her shawl as a fowling net. “When she twisted the shawl round him, the eagle drove his claw into the palm of her hand and out through the other side.”  Unable to free herself from the eagle’s grip, she had to walk to Dingle with the eagle’s talons through her hand. There, the local doctor had to intervene and, Peig told her son, “I think he had to cut the eagle’s claw to loosen its grip.”  The doctor bought the eagle from the woman, and she used the money for the fare home. The last eagle of Mount Eagle was thus sold to one of the highest-ranking members of society in Dingle town. The tale does not tell why the woman sought to catch the bird in the first place, or what the man wanted the eagle for .
Featuring early on in Micheál’s autobiography, not much is made of this little story of a local extinction. At first, it appears to be just part of an archive of stories that Gaelic storytelling culture tells us in relation to the origins of place names. But later in his narration, Micheál returns to the view towards Mount Eagle. In a chapter tellingly entitled ‘I’m thinking sadly about the Life that is gone,’ he reminisces about mornings of summers past, when “the yellow, golden sun would rise up from the shoulder of the mountain,” when both mountain and sea “would be the colour of gold with the brightness of the weather. The fish would be coming in on the quay and shoaling outside in the mouth of the strand and in Yellow Island Shore.” 
Significantly, Micheál’s preceding paragraph draws attention to the dramatic shift that occurred over the course of his lifetime on the Great Blasket: “I remember when this place was at its height and the fishing good but, God help us, that day is past and things have changed.” He bemoans that the island people have “neither spirit nor drive,” “no inclination for fishing either, even if the fish were there.” At the time of writing, he notes that the “old custom is at an end and I’m afraid that living on the Island is at an end too.”  In his subsequent melancholic view towards Mount Eagle, Micheál seems to embed a narrative of degradation and extinction that is both environmental and cultural. When he looked towards Mount Eagle as a child at the hand of his mother Peig, he imagined her tale of the end of the last eagle; and looking at the mountain as a grown man who was soon to depart the Great Blasket, he saw the absence of the shoals of fish and the disappearance of a way of life by the sea.
The connection between language, landscape, place names, storytelling, and lived experience was a central part of island life and Gaelic-speaking coastal cultures. We are currently witnessing a resurgence of interest and initiatives in collecting present-day Gaelic coastal stories and vocabularies, like Manchán Magan’s Sea Tamagotchi in Ireland or the project The Coast that Shaped the World in Scotland. The little library of Great Blasket books, which reflects the perspective of the members of a resilient but ultimately vanishing community on their own lives and the environment in which these lives unfolded, has long been a classic of Irish, and especially of Gaelic literature. Micheál’s stories document a vernacular view of the concerns of small island communities. Maybe it is time that such writing from the farthest western edge of Ireland (and of Europe) also drew the attention of ecocritics and scholars in the environmental humanities more broadly, reflecting as it does an island life whose disappearance illustrates the interlinked fragility of vernacular storytelling, human life, and the environment.
Matthias Egeler wishes to acknowledge funding from the Heisenberg-Programme of the German Research Association, and Anna Pilz wishes to acknowledge funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement No 890850.
Recommended reading about the Great Blasket Island
Seán O’Crohan, A Day in Our Life. Translated from the Irish by Tim Enright (Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 1992).
Tomás O’Crohan, Island Cross-Talk. Pages from a Blasket Island Diary. Translated from the Irish by Tim Enright (Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 1986).
Tomás O’Crohan, The Islandman. Translated from the Irish by Robin Flower (Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 2000 (orig. ed. 1937)).
Micheál O’Guiheen, A Pity Youth Does not Last. Reminiscences of the Last of the Great Blasket Island’s Poets and Storytellers. Translated from the Irish by Tim Enright (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982).
Maurice O’Sullivan, Twenty Years A-Growing. Rendered from the original Irish with a Preface by Moya Llewelyn Davies and George Thomson, with an Introductory Note by E. M. Forster (Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 1953 (first paperback edition 1983, reissue 2000)).
Peig Sayers, Peig. The Autobiography of Peig Sayers of the Great Blasket Island. Translated into English by Bryan MacMahon. Illustrations by Catriona O’Connor (Dublin: Talbot Press, 1974).
Peig Sayers, An Old Woman’s Reflections. Translated from the Irish by Séamus Ennis and introduced by W. R. Rodgers (Oxford – New York: Oxford University Press, 1962 (first paperback edition 1978)).
Robin Flower, The Western Island, or The Great Blasket. With illustrations by Ida M. Flower (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1944 (reprint 1966)).
 Tomás O’Crohan, Island Cross-Talk. Pages from a Blasket Island Diary. Translated from the Irish by Tim Enright (Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), 148.
 Tim Enright, “Introduction,” in Micheál O’Guiheen, A Pity Youth Does not Last. Reminiscences of the Last of the Great Blasket Island’s Poets and Storytellers. Translated from the Irish by Tim Enright (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982), xiii–xxi (xiv–xv).
 For more on boat culture in the West of Ireland, in particular Connemara, and its implications for our understanding of people, language, landscape, and environment see David Gange’s talk “People of Small Boats.”
 See Patricia Lysaght, “Paradise Lost? Leaving the Great Blasket,” Béaloideas 74 (2006): 155–206.
 Micheál O’Guiheen, A Pity Youth Does not Last. Reminiscences of the Last of the Great Blasket Island’s Poets and Storytellers. Translated from the Irish by Tim Enright (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982), 22.
 Micheál O’Guiheen, A Pity Youth Does not Last, 23.
 Tomás O’Crohan, Island Cross-Talk, 108, 148, 160.
 Micheál O’Guiheen, A Pity Youth Does not Last, 23.
 Micheál O’Guiheen, A Pity Youth Does not Last, 23.
 Micheál O’Guiheen, A Pity Youth Does not Last, 22–23. Irish and Scottish place names that refer to eagles have also been made the basis of ecological research. See Richard J. Evans, Lorcán O’Toole, and D. Philip Whitfield, “The History of Eagles in Britain and Ireland: An Ecological Review of Placename and Documentary Evidence from the last 1500 years,” Bird Study 59:3 (2012): 335–349, DOI: 10.1080/00063657.2012.683388. On the recent re-introduction of eagles in Ireland, see here.
 Micheál O’Guiheen, A Pity Youth Does not Last, 82.
 Micheál O’Guiheen, A Pity Youth Does not Last, 82–83.
On a sunny day, tens of thousands of people flock to the ‘Theresienwiese’ festival grounds. Source: Pixabay
Every year in late September, the atmosphere in Munich becomes thicker when Oktoberfest takes place. The intense odors of roasted almonds and grilled chicken mingle with those of specially brewed lager and the sweat of thousands of people roaming the festival grounds. This olfactory sensation is accompanied by the dazzling lights of the various roller coasters and the amplified lure of the ghost trains’ impresarios.
Since its beginnings as a celebration in honor of the wedding of Crown Prince Ludwig of Bavaria and Princess Therese in 1810, the world’s largest folk festival seems to put the city into a collective state of frenzy. Over time, the ‘Wiesn,’ as the locals call it, has become notorious not only as a typical Bavarian folk festival but also as a German one. Today, more than 6 million people from all over the world flock to the festival grounds and into one of the 15 football field-sized festival tents. The vast number of visitors often causes the tents to close around noon due to overcrowding.
Those who make it inside usually gulp down over 7.3 million liters of beer during the two weeks of the festival. In 2019, a staggering 124 oxen and 29 calves were eaten, with the number of chickens, ducks, pork knuckles, and sausages together adding up to millions. But the ravenousness not only fills the coffers of the festival tents’ innkeepers. International tourists attracted by Oktoberfest’s global reputation spend quite some time and money in Munich, bringing around €1.23 billion into the city’s economy (according to a survey among businessmen in 2014). So it comes as no surprise that the city’s marketing department diligently promotes pictures of tourists and locals in ‘traditional’ Bavarian dress, sitting together in harmony and toasting with the one-liter beer mugs called ‘Maß.’
Despite these idyllic images, questions of sustainability are increasingly becoming of concern to the event’s organizers. In order to reduce the consumption of resources and promote the folk festival as a model for large-scale events, the water used for rinsing beer mugs in many festival tents is now transferred to the toilets where it can be used a second time. Since 2012, electricity has been generated from renewable energy sources. According to Stadtwerke München, the public utility company providing the natural gas that is used to prepare the food, carbon dioxide emissions are compensated for by emission reduction certificates.
However, carbon dioxide emissions are only one problem among many and despite efforts to tackle the waste of resources, Oktoberfest still cannot be considered a sustainable event. Public statistics show that about 105,000 cubic meters of water, as well as 2.84 million kilowatt-hours of electricity, were consumed in 2019. In addition, in 2018, researchers at the Technical University of Munich (TUM) conducted measurements showing that methane gas emissions in Munich during the festival were three times higher than usual. The emissions even exceed those generated by the metropolitan area of the major US city of Boston by a factor of ten. Given that methane is the second largest contributor to the man-made greenhouse effect after carbon dioxide, and said to have 28 to 34 times its global warming potential, the researchers called for systematic strategies to reduce these emissions.
Following the cancellation of Oktoberfest in 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the 2021 Oktoberfest, which was due to take place from 18 September to 3 October, was also cancelled by organizers. This disruption can be seen as an opportunity to think about how to do things differently in terms of sustainability. But what could these strategies look like in practice? Would it be sufficient to examine the festival’s many kilometers of gas pipelines in search of potential methane leaks, and then seal them, as researchers from TUM have suggested? This would certainly be an important step. But it seems just as important to think about how we as individuals and as a society organize our leisure time and about the sustainability of the ways we celebrate. Considering the many visitors from all over the world, the question arises of how Oktoberfest can become an ‘authentic’ and at the same time sustainable experience for both tourists and locals.
The role Oktoberfest plays for the population has changed dramatically over the last two hundred years. The first Oktoberfest was held just a few years after Napoleon made the Duchy of Bavaria a kingdom. In order to instil feelings of attachment to the new nation and form a common identity, the celebrations were designed in such a way that not only the royal court but also common people could participate. There were contests, such as horse races, in which people could actively take part. They were not just expected to consume. Nowadays, the main purpose of the folk festival is to stimulate mass consumption and keep profits flowing.
In its current manifestation, Oktoberfest stands for a form of social organization in which leisure time and celebration have become a product with a price tag that can only be consumed and no longer produced or organized by people themselves. This leads to a situation in which the individual, or rather the consumer, becomes more and more alienated from the products they consume. Following insights from critical theory, I argue that in order to rethink Oktoberfest in a more sustainable way, people need to reclaim their pastimes and the ways they celebrate. More specifically, Oktoberfest must be reclaimed!
To achieve this, mass consumption needs to be countered with sustainable alternatives that promote cooperation. Oktoberfest visitors could participate in the production of food consumed at the festival. Locals, as well as foreign tourists, could help in the growing of vegetables in urban gardens and in the raising of and caring for animals on nearby farms. In this way, they would not only get to know the urban hinterland but also gain insight into the joys and toils of food production, especially when it comes to meat. Likewise, locals and tourists could brew beer together and learn to appreciate not only the craft but also the product (to an appropriate extent, of course).
Learning together, working together, and celebrating together, rather than just the latter, could be one way of developing a holistic, more sustainable, and connected form of leisure. Reclaiming Oktoberfest is about changing the way locals and visitors alike celebrate Munich’s culture.
This might be considered an unrealistic proposal. However, the establishment of a palm garden on the site of the Theresienwiese in the wake of the corona crisis shows that something previously unimaginable—that of a beach emerging from the festival grounds—is not altogether unthinkable or even impossible.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
The Isarauen (Courtesy of Jan Antonin Kolar via Unsplash)
22 January 2021
The Urban Environments Initiative (UEI) held its third workshop entitled Re:Thinking the Urban on 22 January 2021. The online workshop brought UEI members from across the globe together for an in-depth analysis and discussion regarding two case studies of “spaces of living in transformation” that have undergone significant change in Munich—the Isarauen and the Schlachthof. The workshop was divided into two main parts, the first being dedicated to an exchange of thoughts, reactions, and opinions regarding the two case studies while the second half focused more on the planning of the upcoming UEI conference in June 2021 (more details below).Read More
The author and Susi in the Austrian Alps overlooking the Steinernes Meer where she grew up. (Photo: Heidi Danzl)
The Alps can be considered a hot spot for climate change due to changing growing seasons and tree lines, species migration, more intense weather events, increased glacial melt, droughts, mudslides, avalanches, flooding, and the omnipresence of micro-technofossils. They are therefore well suited to teaching the Anthropocene and exploring its impacts. In the following, I sketch several ideas for teaching the Anthropocene based on existing cultural events, institutions, and practices within contemporary Alpine communities. Beyond studies of the Alps dominated by the natural sciences, Alpine culture is underrepresented in academia and is often reduced to somewhat kitschy questions of “Heimat” (home), “tradition,” and an “easy, stress-free life.” Prevailing perceptions of Alpine culture and the “McDonaldization”  of Alpine leisure activities (ski resorts and fun parks) are deeply problematic. Traditions are often reduced to fossilized stereotypes for tourism while alpine areas are represented as places for a second home or as a setting for television series such as “Bauer sucht Frau” (Farmer seeks wife). Through family farm holidays, farmers are commonly reduced to infotainment. Traditional Alpine inhabitants are also frequently labeled as eternally backward, petty, and narrow-minded. Consequently, there needs to be a renewed focus on the strengths of Alpine culture, which should in no way be understood as homogenous. In this article, I argue why traditional, regional knowledge should not be blatantly declared “old-fashioned,” “right-wing conservative,” “exotic” or “too regional.” Rather, I want to present it as a credible source of local, place-based knowledge from which to teach the Anthropocene.Read More
Earlier this year, Explore, a multimedia company that operates the largest live nature camera network on the planet, noticed that one of its livestreams was going viral. The feed in question broadcasts from Churchill, Manitoba. Positioned directly beneath the auroral oval, this camera offers viewers a chance to catch a glimpse of the spectacular auroral displays that grace the city’s skyline nearly three hundred days of every year. The burgeoning popularity of this live cam is a direct consequence of the Covid-19 pandemic. In the midst of rising coronavirus case numbers, Churchill’s camera footage was also experiencing exponential growth, attracting hundreds of thousands of new viewers every month. When asked why their livestream was so popular, Explore executives hypothesized that it was due, in part, to the restorative powers of nature . In their minds, their northern lights footage was more than just a fun form of lockdown entertainment. Rather, it was also serving a therapeutic function. As airlines were grounding their planes, countries were closing their borders, and people around the world were being ordered indoors, Explore’s northern camera footage provided viewers with a safe means of connecting to the environment and tapping into its many physical and mental health benefits.Read More
In late 2013, an Australian newspaper reported that a man from Kiribati “stood to make history as the world’s first climate refugee.” The New Zealand High Court, before which the man appeared, rejected the claim because the category of climate refugee was not included under the United Nations’ provisions for refugees. While the legal situation has not changed, the number of reports about purported “climate refugees” has risen over the past few years just like the tides that are said to be displacing them.Read More
Lonesome George (Source: Arturo de Frias Marques, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)
The reports said they wanted to kill the turtle. They surrounded the research station and refused to let supplies go through to the 33 people—and the colony of reptiles—inside the building.  Yet the fishermen went on strike and took the building not because they hated that turtle (they did not even intend to harm it), but because of what it meant: an allegory of the politics of conservationism, development, and the local making of science. Lonesome George, the oldest living tortoise at the time and symbolic target of the fishermen, stood for environmental conservationist policies that limited their commercial activities, ideas of restoration, science, and economic development, and serious attempts of making a laboratory out of the Galápagos—and the rise and fall of this symbol entails a history.
In On the Backs of Tortoises, environmental historian Elizabeth Hennessy makes sense of these stories by weighing the histories and evidence supporting them to show what was at stake. Her book traces the travels, disputes, and writings that made the Galápagos a contested space. Since the Beagle arrived on its shores in 1835 carrying a young observer by the name of Charles Darwin, an entanglement of myths, discourses, and practices changed the social and environmental worlds of the archipelago. Today, a white-bearded Darwin in the middle of an arch watches over native species. The secular godlike figure stands at the end of a street that bears his name. Yet, as Hennessy shows, Darwin came up with the ideas that made him famous years after he visited the islands, and he was not the nature-lover conservationist some people have in mind. A young Darwin rode on the backs of tortoises and ate turtle soup just like everybody else at the time. He even drank from the water they store internally, like camels, just for the sake of knowing what it tasted like.
The myth of Darwin as a man of science and a wise traveler—the old one with the majestic beard—worked as an anchor for a diverse set of scientific and political endeavors during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Before and after the rise of the story of Darwin and his findings at these pristine islands, their location and environmental conditions drew a few people and brought changes with them: pirates, travelers, settlers, and military bases. The Darwin rupture lied in imagining the remainders of Eden, an old world that prompted visits in the form of curious travelers, collectors, scientific expeditions, and now tourists. Going to the Galápagos became, in a way, traveling to the past.
Entrance of the Charles Darwin Research Station, Galápagos, Ecuador (Source: David Adam Kess, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons).
Hennessy shows how the islands and the animals that inhabited it, such as Lonesome George, became icons of Eden, symbols of a world before human intervention and its eventual decline. As a laboratory to study the paths of evolution, the adaptive processes of vegetation, and the lives of nearly extinct giant tortoises, the Galápagos turned into a scientific space in need of aggressive protection. Even further, a wave of efforts to “restore” it as a prehistoric site of wilderness, devoid of any traces of human existence, reveals the artifice of making a natural laboratory: a place as natural and human as anywhere else. Her historical analysis unpacks the politics—conflict, violence, diplomatic troubles, and internal displacement—underlying these processes. The idea of “restoring nature” implies an image of what nature is and how it looks (or looked) like, which species should live in a certain space and which ones should be displaced or killed, and how humans are supposed to look at nature and use it for development without changing it. But, as it usually happens, every attempt to stay the same produces unforeseen transformations. Using tortoises as an anchor, Hennessy’s research merges apparently disconnected historiographies, from the histories of science and tourism to environmental and political histories of the Galápagos, to destabilize what preserving wilderness actually means. Conserving, protecting, and restoring are only other names for change. Nothing ever stays the same.
In 1835, the same year that the Galápagos saw Darwin arrive aboard the Beagle, Nathaniel Hawthorne penned “Wakefield,” a short story about a common, even boring man, who suddenly left his marriage and his family behind. He went away—yet “away” for him meant moving one block from his old house. He dedicated his time—twenty years—to look at his house in secret, to see how life went on without him. No one looks for Wakefield, not even his family, and yet he keeps looking through the window to feed his curiosity of a pristine world without him. But things changed: when he decided to come back, his family had built a life of their own. His initial presence set the course of their story and, at last, he met the impossibility of picking up where he left off. On the Backs of Tortoises evokes a similar curiosity: the need to look without being seen, the desire for being part of a story without altering its course—a peak into a world without us. Yet, like Wakefield, the Galápagos offer a similar lesson: there is no turning back.
Publishing details: Elizabeth Hennessy, On the Backs of Tortoises: Darwin, the Galápagos, and the Fate of an Evolutionary Eden (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019).