Inaugural Place-Based Workshop Explores How Disciplines Read Landscapes
Post by Johanna Bär, Adrian Franco, Rob Emmett, and Elena Torres Ruiz
Photo credits: Anna Rühl
Last month, a group of two dozen RCC graduate students, visiting fellows, and LMU faculty traveled to the Osterseen nature reserve for our inaugural place-based workshop. The Osterseen are a chain of glacial dead-ice lakes identified as a site of exceptional national geological interest (Nationaler Geotop). Over three days while camping on the Fohnsee, we explored practical ways in which different disciplines read a landscape. Markus Hoffmann (TUM) introduced us to the research and history of the Iffeldorf limnological field station, Anke Friedrich (LMU) and Seth Stein (Northwestern University) helped us plunge into the geology of the region, and Daniel Rittenauer (Institut für Bayerische Geschichte) provided us with insight into the cultural history of Seeshaupt. Tobias Schiefer (Prof. Schaller UmweltConsult GmbH) took us on a hike that became an in-depth look at the vegetation ecology between Seeshaupt and Iffeldorf and Freia Oliv journeyed with us through the regional art history on display at the Buchheim Museum. What follows is a dialogue on the significance of interdisciplinary field study with participants of the Osterseen trip, an excursion we hope to repeat in the future at other destinations in the region.
Rob Emmett: I’m curious about the relationship between the social and intellectual moments of the workshop. What made the effort at social learning at Osterseen particularly challenging or rewarding for you?
Johanna Bär: In education science you always read about social learning, but also about interactive learning (developing, trying, concreteness) which works always best in the place where things have happened. When somebody shows you a photograph of an endangered butterfly in a biology lesson, perhaps it’s interesting. But it’s unbelievably different when somebody catches that same insect between the flowers of a protected Molinia meadow and holds it in front of your eyes so that you can see its wings in silence. There was a moment when Tobi Schiefer, who led the field ecology segment on Saturday afternoon, let the butterfly fly back into its living space which was established in part to protect this species, the False Heath Fritillary (Melitaea diamina). I think it was then that you have learned something. It touched my emotions at the workshop and in this way I am able to show my experience to others, motivating them to protect our environment.
Adrian Franco: I guess what social learning is all about is the experience of presence with all its consequences – to be virtually “present” on the spot with somebody else, to be inclined to interact with each other and create a common and temporary narrative for the time being, which consists of fragile fabrics of encounters, talks, walks, humor, disregard, etc. Or even more challenging: to struggle for presence among the others. Imagine struggling for the right words right there, without any retreat to your writing desk and without any prorogation. What I want to say is this: academia on the spot differs from the one in formal discourse. It raises questions to a very personal level: which point of view we want to hold or even should feel obliged to represent inside an uncertain/dynamic space and within a limited time-period between cooking, walking and listening. Straightforward: peer-review works here differently. This in mind, it makes me wonder how much we perceive rational science by the means of our senses and sheer empathy (or even worse: antipathy) with people and their very appearances in comparison to each other. I asked myself, why I had put so much attention upon the ways others behaved, how they looked and moved through or even touched the landscape? I find it simply astonishing. To be sure, such a focus could have been caused by my lack of knowledge that prompted me rather to observe those performances, than to discuss the content substantially. But there is another thing less compromising that does not necessarily point towards epistemic deficiency only: what if science is all about this, about me and you and the other?
Johanna Bär: I want to get back to social learning: as a student of theology I often discussed this semester with other students the question: what makes us human? And one of the best answers I found was: that we are “Beziehungswesen,” which is perhaps only in part conveyed in English with the words “social characters,” I think. We not only need other human beings for living – it has a much more positive meaning. We find our luck in being with others – acceptance, joy, interest, motivation. And exactly this was noticeable at the workshop. We weren’t just students always going to the same lessons, talking about the weather and the instructor’s material. We were just campers and shared our leisure time with what for “normal students” might be a very unusual interest in almost all that we could see. Motivation which develops out of a group, interest and engagement for the environment, but even for the others, nature itself and an ambitious level of research are the best basis for learning. So I could partly agree with Adrian’s sentence, “what if science is all about this, about me and you and the other” when “the other” would mean nature.
Rob Emmett: Environmental historians famously, as Raymound Williams once wrote, see a “great deal of human history” in nature, which implies there is no un-storied landscape, no blank slate “out there,” perhaps even no absolute “other” outside of us. We struggle and disagree over our different interpretations of environmental change, but the overall tendency is toward making changes in the land legible and seeing the contested history of places previously assumed to be static. Where did you see interesting contradictions, tensions, or potential stories worth telling in the landscapes that you visited around the Osterseen?
Elena Torres Ruiz: For me, the greatest tensions had to do with the different ways disciplines answered the question “How do we measure time?” On our first fieldtrip we found ourselves standing on a damp road in the Bavarian countryside, trying to understand the environment. A steady drizzle guided our gazes as we were led by geologists Anke Friedrich and Seth Stein to look at what seemed to be a typical landscape in Oberbayern: a swampy lake, lots of reed, some small hills, a few barns, a forest, and bigger hills. We compared it to larger picture we saw on our maps. Over the course of the next few hours we explored the area together and learned to understand the geological nature of this landscape. Hidden underneath the grass of the small, elongated hills were tons of gravel, moved up and around by geological forces. We began to think of surfacing, floating, and submerging plates as the media and matter that forms our planet. Media like the glacier that altered this landscape. Moving by the sheer pressure of its own weight, the glacier squelched along, heaving unimaginable amounts of gravel down the interfolded mountains that lie behind the grey of the horizon. Now this gravel rests underneath thin, almost vulnerable (and not very nutritive) sheets of soil. When will it move again? Is it moving now?
Saturday morning a different transformation had taken place as we met in Seeshaupt on the Starnberger See. The group turned to cultural history and we were eager to find out more about the area from an expert in this field, Daniel Rittenauer from the Institut für Bayerische Geschichte. To his dismay there was little to report: No king had come through the Osterseen to hunt game, no regional economy had developed because there was hardly any agriculture on the weak soils. Property- and fishing-rights moved from one monastery to the other and at some point a small castle burnt down. In cultural terms the message seemed to be: “really, nothing happened here.”
As I imagine the geological processes that account for the present appearance of the Osterseen, I realize that my mind has to move in super-fast forward. How else could I imagine this timespan? But if my imagination alters time, am I able to make sense of what has happened here and what I am seeing now? How relevant are days or even months, years, decades or more? In my life, these categories are very important but we may have to overcome them in order to understand this landscape. Otherwise we are left with a static answer: “nothing happened here.”
Adrian Franco: After the Osterseen, I also feel that shapes matter. Where I come from (history) we seldom leave archives and other dense “containers of knowledge” unless we are trying to explain a monumental space itself – a concentration camp, a battle-field. In the end, Osterseen brought home this impact of factual/spatial encounters. A similar phenomenon occurs also in history when we begin to think about personal lives or even about oral history and the emotional/descriptive power attributed to contemporaries (e.g. the eye witness) with science as the framework of approach. What I found puzzling at the Osterseen is the transition from “a place where nothing happened” to a state-protected landscape of scientific and touristic interest at the end of the last century.
In fact, I tend to think that personal lives, emotions, science and history mingle with each other: the scientists we met Friday morning at Iffeldorf are proud of their limnological research station not only because of their findings relevant to the conservation of Bavarian water-systems. It’s also about the whole process of establishing this station at the Osterseen after many years of personal and collective efforts and intense group-experience, including the refurbishment of three old beautiful farmhouses by their own hands. I’m quite sure that the Osterseen have changed and still preserved some things – somewhere between gravel pits, algae, and prestigious science.
NB: The RCC’s Environmental Studies Certificate Program was recently given official status by the LMU Munich. Applications for the upcoming academic year will be accepted until 1 October. For more information on how to apply, please click here.