Seeing the Woods

A blog by the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society

Five Minutes with a Fellow: Andrea Kiss

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Five Minutes with a Fellow offers a brief glimpse into what inspires researchers in the environmental humanities. The interviews feature current and former fellows from the Rachel Carson Center.

pic_kissAndrea Kiss holds an MSc in geography, MAs in history and Hungarian medieval studies from Szeged University, and an MA and PhD in medieval studies from Central European University. She has taught at Szeged University for 16 years, lecturing on historical geography, environmental history, and related disciplines. Since 2010 she has been a research fellow at the Habsburg Historical Institute in Budapest and Szeged University. Her research focuses mainly on long-term changes in the historical environment of Hungary and the Carpathian Basin.

How does your research contribute to discussions around solving environmental challenges?

Due to the fact that my research—either studying climates and natural hazards, or reconstructing landscapes, environments, and their changes/evolution—is meant to be utilized in present-day decision-making and predictions/forecasting, it has direct and indirect applications. Thus, it is applied history: applied in various fields of environmental science, both in everyday decision making, area planning, and in medium- and long-term predictions.

For example, in the last few years I have worked mainly on topics related to historical climate variability and change, which includes temperature, precipitation, and flood reconstruction, from seasonal to millennial scales (e.g., 500-year summer temperature reconstruction based on wine phenological information such as grape harvest dates). These investigations are used, for example, in modeling the climate variability and changes of the last several hundreds of years, and in providing a basis for climate predictions (medium- and long-term). Another important strand of my work is the detection and interpretation of documented (weather-related) extreme events and their consequences. These investigations provide information about how past societies coped with disasters, what the main causes were, and what kind of short-, medium- and long-term changes (e.g. societal response to a catastrophic event) took place due to the extreme events (e.g. devastating flood events, droughts etc.). For example, in the past hundred years there were periods when devastating floods were much more frequent than they are today (e.g. the mid-to-late 16th century). In many cases, thanks to rich contemporary documentation, it is possible to study the causes, process, and consequences (both environmental and social) of such extraordinary flood events that did not occur in the period of “instrumental measurements” (i.e., the last 100-150 years).

Another strand of my work is landscape history, which can be used, for example, in decision-making and area planning. The reconstruction of how a landscape/environment looked in the past, how it changed (either in the last century or in the last 800 years), and in what way it was “traditionally” used (i.e., understanding and applying historical methods of sustainable landscape management) can provide useful answers and solutions for today’s problems, related either to habitat reconstruction in a (protected) national park area or to landscape planning/optimalization of a certain area. Taking such aspects into consideration we could, for example, avoid “misunderstandings” that lead to the removal of an island in a (former) wetland, to create a “natural” lake. The consequences of landscape changes (including, for example, water regulation and drainage) can be very important in the long run, and can help us to understand why some environmental mechanisms changed over time (e.g., in river regimes—climate-human combined impacts).

What is one change you would like to see happen to achieve a sustainable future?

I would change lots of things. One example is to move fashion in a more ecological direction. Today (unlike, for example in the high/late medieval or early modern times), fashion is mainly based on rapid changes and the mass production of medium/low quality items. In many cases the items produced in great quantities are unhealthy. Often the young generation is strongly affected, and nobody knows the possible health-related effects in the long run. Fashion history (and also the basic logic of sustainability) provides us with plentiful  examples for a more sustainable (and healthier) dress-code.

What is your favorite piece of environmental literature?

I would like to name many. However, if I have to name one inspiring piece of literature that influenced me “in the beginning,” then it would be H.H. Lamb’s Climate, History and the Modern World. It is not a typical piece of scientific literature, and in retrospect I can see that it is often deterministic. Nevertheless, as a student and also later, I found it very exciting and thought-provoking. It was a fascinating and inspiring piece of literature. I also like numerous historical novels or the type of fictions in which the environment plays an important role—when the author is motivated to make separate, additional investigations into the (contemporary or imaginary) environmental conditions.

Who has been a big influence on your work and life, and why?

It is a difficult question to answer, because I should name many people: it would be unfair to mention only one or two, while leaving out the other 15-20. My interest in “environmental history” or (as I understood it back then) “something between history and (physical) geography” (since environmental studies were closely linked to geography in Hungarian education) started before I had the ability to read. So, I could start the list with my parents, continue with primary and secondary school teachers (e.g. history and geography teachers), then add my Hungarian and foreign professors in Szeged, Budapest, and abroad (for example, the Czech Republic, Switzerland, Britain, Germany, or Austria). I think I have been (and still am) lucky enough to meet, be influenced by and learn from many professionals with exceptional scientific qualities. So, this process has not yet concluded—I work with inspiring and very influential professionals every day…

Where is your favorite place to spend time with nature?

Lake(s) or the seashore with mountains (and islands) nearby. This means either mountains with lakes or the sea with island(s). However, all my favorite landscapes are in Europe. I feel very comfortable in mountains. For hiking I like the region along the Danube Bend in Hungary, the Alpine lakes, the Scottish western coastline, or the dry-stone landscape of Crete and the Pirin mountains, with hundreds of small lakes in Bulgaria. This is one of the many reasons why I liked München and its broader Alpine area when I had the opportunity to be a fellow at the RCC. Moreover, purely out of aesthetics, I prefer landscapes with (post)volcanic activities.


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