Seeing the Woods

A blog by the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society

Editing the Environment

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pic_kotasBy Dominic Kotas

I had heard of editing before I applied to become an editor at the RCC, but I had never really done it, and I didn’t know much about environmental studies. My first volume of RCC Perspectives, then, was a challenge. Certainly I added to my knowledge of human-nature relations in the cosmology of the Sateré-Mawé Indians of the Lower Amazon – no doubt about that. But, more generally, I was surprised how little I trusted my judgment and how uncertain I was of what needed to be changed. With editing, like with almost everything, the more you do it, the better you get. Even if you don’t notice. As a British citizen, I am constitutionally required to describe myself as never better than mediocre at anything, but even I can see that my editing skills have improved over the last two years. I trust my judgment more, proofread more rigorously, and make fewer small mistakes (although I’m not immune to the occasional blunder).

What have I learnt about environmental studies? Well, it is the curse of the editor often to read for errors rather than for content, and I’m not sure I could tell you about every article I have edited. But I have been impressed by the variety of topics discussed and presented at the RCC, and by the excitement of scholars to be working on environmental issues. Maybe this is a product of climate change. The environment is a hot topic – people are discussing it and are open to hearing and reading about it. But the excitement is also a product of the possibilities and diversity on offer at the RCC. Our contributors have included historians, archaeologists, neuroscientists, literary critics, fishing communities, ecovillage residents, lawyers, and theologians. The Center is a hub, and as such it’s diverse, vibrant, busy, and exciting. People relish the chance to work with each other.

That’s nice for them, of course, but is it enough? Do the articles that they write and that we publish serve a purpose?

One of our goals might be described as outreach. The RCC Perspectives journal tries to connect with an audience beyond academia; we edit it accordingly. We have had many positive comments about this characteristic of the articles that we publish. But the connection is not easily made. Scholars have studied for many years to become experts, and experts by definition know a lot more than most people about a very specific subject. Sometimes complicated terminology is hard to avoid, and even when it can be avoided, the subject matter is not always the most compelling to non-specialists.

What’s more, not everyone would agree that connecting in an immediate way with a broader public is the job of scholars or of the RCC. A fascinating conversation appeared recently on our blog, and it will be developed into an RCC Perspectives volume that I am greatly looking forward to reading. In the exchange, Don Worster wrote that “like scientists, we scholars in the humanities should leave the entertainment and popular appeal to others” but that “we can have a great (if long-term and often hard to trace) impact on public understanding”. I sympathise with such a stance, but I also understand the impatience that others feel. When threatened with climate change, playing the long game is of questionable value. There may be nowhere for the game to be played if we continue on our current path.

Those kinds of debates are crucial, and I hope they continue – life at the RCC is, in my opinion, not just livelier but more productive when scholars lock horns and question the purpose of their work and their disciplines. (Admittedly, this is easy for me to say – I don’t have to present a long-term project for the fearsome scrutiny of the Works in Progress audience.) But whichever direction the RCC takes from here, it will always be a great place to work as an editor. I can think of two benefits in particular. First, I have been exposed to an eye-opening range of viewpoints and perspectives, through the articles I have edited, the social media contacts I have made, and the people I have met. And secondly, I have had the privilege of being paid to read some wonderful pieces of writing. So I’ll end by offering two pieces that I greatly enjoyed editing: “An Impure Nature: Memory and the Neo-Materialist Flip at America’s Biggest Toxic Superfund Site” by Timothy LeCain, and “The Beast of the Forest” by Tom Griffiths. If you spot any mistakes, your eyes must be deceiving you.




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