Seeing the Woods

A blog by the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society

Cocaine, Schizophrenia, and Nuclear Reactors: Life as an RCC Editor

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By Brenda Black

Our work as editors at the RCC requires us to be generalists (because of the wide variety of topics encountered), but also capable of interpreting highly specialized texts (because it is impossible to edit what one does not understand).

For one issue of Perspectives, my google search history included: cocaine, schizophrenia, bottlenecking, sermons, Hitler, synapses, placebo effects, Hume, slave rebellions, and peacocks. For other articles, I have found myself researching topics such as: How does a nuclear reactor work, or, more mundanely, how do automobile engines work. Another time I desperately wished I had taken a course in organic chemistry so that I could understand a discussion of industrial chemicals, and yet another article had me researching different agricultural methods such as no-till farming.

One of the most interesting and challenging articles I have edited was concerned with palynology, the study of pollen, something I hadn’t known even existed. This scientific field can provide intriguing insights into environments of the past through analysis of the pollen contained in the sediments of bogs and other natural archives. Used in combination with archaeological records and geochemical analysis of metals in the environment, palynology can help us reconstruct the history of human activities such as agriculture and mining.

I learned more than I ever would have thought to ask about types of food carried by Arctic explorers in the early twentieth century. It turns out the principle “google knows everything” is not necessarily always true. I never managed to figure out what was meant by “Fleischschokolade” (“meat chocolate”). On the other hand, sailor’s foods and northern German specialities such as “labskaus” and “brunkohl” later proved to be a handy conversational topic when visiting friends in Hamburg–they were quite impressed with my knowledge of their regional cuisine.

Location matters, too: Some apparently objective scientific terms are not used the same way everywhere in the world. The following terms are relatively established in German contexts, but quite rare in English, a tribute to the fact that, even in an age of globalization, different societies still frame and think about problems in different ways.

  • Immission refers to the environmental concentration of a pollutant. While emissions are the release of substances into the environment, immissions refer to the environmental effects of these substances. In English, it is more common to talk about “pollution” or “exposure.”
  • Biocoenosis (German: Biozönose) was coined by Karl Möbius in 1877 to describe the interaction of organisms living together in a habitat. In English-language contexts “ecosystem” is usually used instead.
  • Renaturation (German: Renaturierung) describes the process of “rewilding” or “restoring” stretches of landscape or ecosystems. In Germany, it is used particularly in connection with allowing rivers to flow and meander naturally, rather than being straightend and regulated using concrete channels.
  • Hemerophiles are animals and plants that thrive in environments that have been altered by humans. Both this term and the equivalent, “Kulturfolger” (culture follower), are common in German-speaking contexts. English seems to prefer “synanthropic species” or “anthropophilous species.”

Occasionally, our work requires acquainting ourselves with facts that seem to have little to do with the links between environment and society. I have learned about the Australian concept of “mateship” (encompassing qualities of loyalty, friendship, and fairness), the Orthodox Monastery on Valaam Island (Karelia, Russian Federation), the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, the life of King Tut, and the nineteenth-century dissident religious group who called themselves “German Catholics.” However, even these are deeply embedded within the stories of the people who explored, altered, and were themselves shaped by the natural world around them.

Finally, there are words which themselves tell a story, offering us snapshots of a place or a moment in time. The RCC’s location in Munich is reflected in such terms as Energiewende, the much-discussed (and yet to materialize) German energy transition, which at once suggests not just a switch to sustainable fuel sources, but a sweeping societal transformation as well. We have become well acquainted with the history of the term Nachhaltigkeit and its subtle differences from the English equivalent, sustainability. Moving further eastward, we encounter the Russian zapovedniki, protected natural areas preserved for the purposes of scientific research. While they resemble North American national parks in some ways, the history and goals are quite distinct. On the Asian steppes we also encounter zhut, a weather phenomenon occurring every ten to twelve years, characterized by the freezing of fodder grasses and resulting starvation of livestock.

In India, by contrast, we find char, a Bengali word referring to unstable alluvial land, usually a strip of sandy land rising out of the bed of a river or the sea above water level. Japan offers new ways of looking at ecosystems: there is iriai, communally used land. Unlike the European commons, which focuses on questions of ownership and the rights of individuals using the land, iriai encompasses the community as a whole, including both humans and nonhumans. Related to this is satoyama, a term applied to the border zone or area between mountain foothills and arable flat land. These are generally semi-wild spaces (e.g. woodlands or rice paddies) that have been managed by humans for hundreds of years. In the twentieth century, these areas have become part of a conservation movement which promotes traditional practices as a model for biodiversity and sustainable development.


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